Saturday, 24 February 2018

02 Chapter Two: The Ark-Hive


Taking off was purely routine. They'd done it a thousand times. Even so, Cora found herself watching him more carefully. She didn't know what had happened, but hadn't had the nerve to push it. If she made a mess of it, she'd be locked in with him for days and days. Just mentioning the wrong word had made it awkward with her best friend.
But now they were out of the Pressure Chamber, and she couldn't put it off any more. “When we get back, there'll be questions.” Cora told him. “Leave them to me.”
Yeah?”
It's standard, when a mission goes bad.” Cora nodded. “The only questions for you will be from my dad, and what we got up to while we waited.”
Oh, well that makes me feel better.” Tai groaned sarcastically. “What sort of questions will there be for you?”
Stingray will want to know what happened, since a Sonar Pack is no small loss.”
This was a masterpiece of understatement. Resources were tightly controlled on the Ark-Hive. The submarines were a hugely versatile tool and their time was scheduled down to the minute. In all likelihood, the Hydra Hawk had been found and towed back to the Ark-Hive, but it would still throw a lot of people off their timetables. Someone would demand an explanation.
Don't worry, Stripes. I was the pilot of record. The conversation is with me.” Cora promised him. “But, uh... while we're on the subject, what did happen back there?” She could feel him tense, sitting next to her. “I know you left the submarine, what I don't know is why you didn't verify the exit first.”
I got distracted.” Tai told her firmly. It was a tone that indicated he wanted no further conversation on the subject.
By what?” Cora was startled. Tai had been driving subs as long as she had. At that depth, you didn't get distracted by anything. “What happened? I was locking the sub down for the trip back... I handed you my breather and headed for the controls... We've done it a hundred times before. What distracted you?”
It doesn't matter.” Tai shook his head. “My attention was elsewhere for a second is all. Like you said, we've done it a hundred times... When something becomes routine, you can do it on autopilot. I missed a step.”
Cora set the controls to keep going and turned her chair around, making them face each other, close enough that their knees were pressed together. “No. I don't buy that. I haven't pressed it, but when we get back, I'm going to have to make a report on it, either to my father or to Stingray Commander. You ever faced Commander Morgan in person before? He makes sharks sweat. What do I tell him?”
Don't worry about it!” Tai started to snap, his voice getting harsher.
Oh, well!” Cora scorned. “I'm sure Commander Morgan has never heard that one before! You want to get us both slammed into Circular Quay? I'll smooth it over, but if there's something going on; it's my head on the block right next to yours! Tai, you know better than anyone: You never ‘miss a step’ when you're that deep, or when you're in the airlock!” She was getting loud now, made all the more harsh by the tight quarters. “So what happened?!”
You did.” Tai said finally, the words coming out in an explosive rush.
Loud silence.
I did? I did what?” She was honestly confused.
You had just come in, and getting out of my way by changing in the hall, and you were checking my suit was sealed... And I... oh Hades...” He had flushed bright red. “I noticed! Alright?!”
Cora's first instinct was to burst out laughing. “You telling me we spent two weeks living hip-to-hip in a pressure chamber because I was changing out of my deepsuit and you were checking me out?” She shook her head. “Nope. Not buying it.”
Don't sell yourself short.”
No, not that.” She was smiling, blushing a little herself. “What I mean is, every pilot team goes through the same thing. We don't get privacy. Nobody below Gold Level gets privacy, and Sub-Drivers less than anyone. Everything under the Ocean is Co-Ed. So Rule Number One is?”
Don't stare, don’t care.” Tai nodded, like it was obvious. And it was. It was a simple fact of life. But then he hesitated. “But I've had... trouble following that rule with you. Only with you.”
Why me?” Cora asked, a split second before she realized what he was saying. “...oh.”
Dead silence.
"I never said anything." He breathed out like he'd been holding it in forever. "And I never would have, because I know how the world works, and I know that you'd let me down easy, and then never speak to me again. But what can I say? We were by ourselves, a hundred miles from anyone, and you were nose to nose with me, running your hands over every seam and seal in my suit for the checklist, and my brain went somewhere else for a moment."
Cora swallowed, tried to speak, swallowed again.
"Don't say anything." He said firmly. "Right now, it's like looking past the Trench. Anything could be out there, good or bad. Right now, you could say anything, good or bad. But whatever it is, we're going to be back in Light Waters in about twelve minutes, and I'd rather not share this conversation with Stingray and their Directional Mikes, or whatever they've got in the cabin. So... let's not say anything until we get home."
Cora nodded compulsively, relieved.
"And... if you like, once we get back, we never have to say anything at all." Tai finished, and calmly turned back to the controls.
He was giving her a way out, and she was so grateful it made her teeth ache. A few moments later, the sub rose over a ridge, and they were suddenly bathed in light. They had reached Light Water.
Perimeter, to DSV Brooklyn, we have you on our screens. Please identify crew.” The voice came over the Comms the instant they could see lights.
Tai took over the Comms and responded. “DSV Brooklyn, to Perimeter Watch. Two crew on board, returning after rescue mission. Is that you, Vaughn?”
Affirmative, Lieutenant. We were glad to hear you two were safe. Welcome back to Light Water. A little bookkeeping for you: Crew health and medical needs?”
Cora let Tai handle the questions and looked back at the water around her home. Lights were bright here, and strung along at regular intervals. The lights were bright enough that even the ocean floor seemed as well lit as an indoor room on Gold Level. Below them, she could see people in their suits, going about their business. Modular habitats like the one she'd just escaped had been placed all over the place as workspaces, to oversee farming and resource gathering. She liked the geometric patterns of the underwater railways that served to take people from the Ark-Hive to their off-site workstations. The lanterns followed the tracks, putting out enough light and warmth to make this small part of the endless ocean feel as natural as being inside.
To the west she could see the Desal Plants that ran day and night to turn the ocean into freshwater for them. To the east she could see the imposing structure of Circular Quay; The Stingray's most secure prison, in full view of everyone on the Ark-Hive, just to remind them all they were always under the watchful eyes of their police force. To the north, she would have seen the memorial, if the Main Structure hadn't been in the way...
And as Tai brought them into dock, she saw the Ark-Hive itself, hundreds of meters tall. Five Domes, with multiple levels in each, stacked on top of each other, each dome getting narrower as they stacked higher. A central trunk ran down through all the Domes for support, and three large support towers were placed at equal intervals around the dome sections. Cora liked the towers. They were so reassuring. They hadn't moved so much as an inch in hundreds of years.
Cora looked up to Gold Sector automatically, right at the apex. It was the only section that had a totally transparent dome on top, giving everyone lucky enough to live there an easy view of the ocean around them. She could see her neighborhood promenade under the Plex, and the usual crowd of people looking out at the water.
The working animals, and even the wild ones that knew to come for food, circled around the top of the Dome like a halo, enjoying the warm water and the attention of the humans. It was the only place in the ocean that was so busy around the clock.
~~/*\~~
The Hangar was Industrial Hub of the Ark-Hive. Everything that came in or went out was based out of the Hangar; everything that had to be constructed was built in the Hangar.
It was the largest chamber in the Ark-Hive, built in a circle around the moon pool. Air pressure kept the water from boiling up to fill the whole chamber, and the pool was wide enough to take entire submarines. The Moon Pool went down almost fifteen feet. The larger submarines couldn't fit under the complex, but the smaller submarines were docked in Ports that surrounded the Moon Pool on all sides.
The Dolphins had access conduits all over the complex that led to the lowest part of the hull, where the Moon Pool released into open ocean. The Divers had several hatches that could lead them all over the place for maintenance. But the vast majority of the transition between the ocean and the habitat was done through the Main Hangar.
There she is!” Tai pointed. “Don brought her back.”
Cora followed his pointing hand to see her sub, safely back after drifting away from them at the Trench. “Don? Don towed her back?”
After he dropped off our care package. Usually done by Stingray, but he was the closest sub with a tow cable, I guess.” Tai shrugged it off. “Looks like she held up okay.”
The Hydra Hawk was almost ten years old, but Cora and her mother had designed it together years before. It was a somewhat controversial design, since it had taken its design from aquatic creatures more than human engineering. Its hull was eight feet wide, but its wings were more than twice that. It was painted in coral and water colors, meant to blend in. The wings were flexible, which made the sub move like a stingray, not using propellers or turbines like the older subs did.
But her father had insisted that more conventional engines be installed anyway. “It would be wrong to gloat.” Cora observed. “Dad never liked the Waterfins design, and he forced me to include the regular jets.”
And that was the part that caved in and nearly drowned us?” Tai smirked. “Right. He nearly lost you, and it wouldn't be wise to say 'I Told You So'.”
The third Docking Port from the entrance belonged to Cora, as it had belonged to her mother before her. The Hangar was always loud and busy and full of workers and machinery busily performing their tasks, but Cora barely noticed them after this long.
~~/*\~~
All roads in the Ark-Hive led to the Ocean.
In the earliest days of the Ark-Hive, every Sector and Dome in the Ark-Hive had ocean access via water tunnels and Moon Pools. When the Ark-Hive Mission began, centuries before, the priority was breeding animal and plant species that could handle the acidity in the Oceans outside. The only way to do that was to control a large body of water inside the structure, where it could be sealed and manipulated.
The Aquarium had run through the entire Dome, with new breeds of fish and plant life migrating back and forth between the science stations. Every Dome had access to these water-tunnels, large enough for a human to swim through, visible to walkways at many points through plexi-glass walls.
Centuries later, the Oceans outside had healed, and the animals and plants were able to survive outside the Dome, but the tunnels remained. Some still had new synth-species in them, though resource management had limited the number of new species being created.
The water-tunnels ran the entire length of the Ark-Hive, and over the centuries they had been used as escape tunnels during fire and flooding, laid with pneumatic messaging tubes, as well as access tunnels for the Dolphins.
One of the apprentices, a young girl with her red hair pulled back in a tight ponytail, was sitting on the edge of the pool, with her feet dangling in the water. She was tossing sardines into the mouth of a familiar Dolphin that was floating on the surface, chattering happily.
The sight of Delphi moving on his own and scarfing sardines, made Cora feel immeasurably lighter, but Don waved her over quickly, and she moved to speak with him before Delphi could notice her arrival.
I got to your TABB before your father did.” Don promised her. “I don't know what you have on here, but I thought-”
Cora was looking right through him, focused on more important things. “How's Delphi? He looks better.”
He is better. Last two weeks, we had to keep him in a sling, half out of the water. But his blood pressure has settled some. We had to operate to repair some internal hemorrhage, but he made it. Once those stitches heal, he'll be back to normal, but dolphin skin isn't the easiest thing to stitch. They never leave the water and they never stop moving, so we've had to keep him in the Moon Pool here.”
Is he free to go?” Cora asked quietly. “I'd keep him inside. Those service tunnels run all the way to Gold Level, and I'd like to have him 'home'.”
He's been asking to leave too, but I'm afraid not. His muscles aren't working right just yet... He thinks he can't swim because we have him held in a smaller tank, but the fact is if we let him out, he'd sink.” Don said gently. “Nix has been helping with his care and feeding.”
Cora noticed Nix for the first time. The girl wasn't quite old enough to be an apprentice yet, and the patch on her jumpsuit said she was a student.
Well, the Moon Pool's better than being in a sling, I guess. At least here he can talk to other Dolphins too.” Cora gestured. “What's her story?”
Nix? She's here all the time. Pre-Apprentice in Admin, but she spends as much free time here as we let her. Why not go over and introduce yourself?”
Cora nodded and headed over to speak with Delphi. "Hey there." Cora smiled sweetly at them both. It was impossible to be unhappy when there were dolphins around, and the relief that her friend would recover was palpable. She came over to the other side of the raised pool, and the Dolphin wheeled gracefully over to come to join her.
Cora glanced at the girl holding out the small fish, looking a little disappointed that the dolphin had so swiftly left her side. Cora signaled the lovely animal to follow and made her way around to the other side of the large water feature. "Hi. I'm Cora." She introduced herself.
The girl looked down shyly. "I know who you are, ma'am."
"Oh, you did not just 'Ma'am' me." Cora scorned. "So, you're the one that's been sneaking my Dolphin sardines, huh? No wonder he never comes around at feeding time." Her tone was light, putting the girl at ease. "You want me to introduce you?"
"To the Dolphin?" The girl seemed delighted. "I didn't know you could do that."
Cora nodded, and pulled Nix's wrist closer, tapping a passcode into the girl's TABB. "There's a small synaptic reader. They get implanted into working Dolphins at the start of their training. Dolphins talk to each other with their echolocation. All those clicks and whistles that let them see? It's also how they communicate. The implant lets us mimic those sounds, the way human earpieces sends transmitted sounds straight into your ear." She tapped at her TABB. "And if we can speak it, we can understand it too. So, what's your name?"
"I-I'm Nix." The girl stammered a little, and Cora typed it in for her. "I knew they were smart..."
"Not like we are." Cora assured her. "They're the closest to sentience we've found down here, and our geneticists are always pushing the edges, but they're not quite like us. But they're smart enough to remember names, smart enough to learn, smart enough to talk to each other..."
The Dolphin clicked and whistled for a moment, rising up out of the water enough to brush its bottle-nosed beak against Nix's leg. Nix could see the translation as it scrolled across the screen. "Hello, Nix. I am Delphi. Thank you for all the tasty fish. Like salty fish lots! Can we be friends?"
Nix giggled a bit. "I'd like that, Delphi. It's nice to know your name, finally."
Don strolled over to join them. “Cora, a word?”
Cora nodded, and made her goodbyes to Delphi, heading over to join Don in his private office. Once they were alone, Don turned to face her. “Is there another reason?”
Another reason for what?” Cora asked innocently.
For flat out ignoring a summons by The Director, and coming here instead. Because you seem to be a million miles away, even when you're speaking with Delphi.”
She considered waving it off, but couldn't help but be honest. “I just had a conversation that completely turns your way of thinking on its head.” Cora confided in her former mentor. “I'm re-living every conversation I've ever had with Tai, and...”
He told you.” Don breathed.
Cora reacted. “Did you know about this? Why didn't you tell me?”
Don chewed his lip. “Your father summoned you to his office. He... wants a full report on what happened out there. What are you going to tell him about Tai?”
Oh I'm not going to tell him about this!” Cora scorned. “You think I'm going to tell The Director that a Green Sector Pilot has a crush on his only daughter? The Quay would snap Tai up in an hour, if we were lucky.”
Don's face changed, and a slow smile spread over his face. “Ah. So, what do you plan to do about it then?”
I was hoping you could offer some advice.” Cora said plaintively.
I'm not going to tell you what to do with your suitors, my dear.” Don chuckled. “But if it matters, the rest of us assumed it was mutual.”
The rest of us?” She repeated. “How many people knew about this before me?” She stammered. “And why would you think it was mutual? I mean, he's my friend, and my Co-Pilot. So...” She shrugged. “Sure, he always brings me Caff in the morning when we're assigned together, and I know he likes jelly on his waffles instead of syrup, and when we're on overnight missions he always sleeps on the starboard side bunk because he knows I sleep facing the wall, and I owe him a lot for bringing Delphi into the Ark-Hive, and yes I like the way he always sends me jokes when I'm in boring conferences with my dad, and I always make sure to play the music he likes on long sub rides...” She broke off suddenly.
Don was smiling broadly.
Cora lowered her face into her hands. “What am I supposed to do?”
Don pushed her TABB back into her hands. “Go see your father. Find out what happened to your submarine, and go back to work.”
Cora took the TABB, strapped it to her wrist with a sigh, and rose to go.
"But while I've got you here, you mind if I ask you something?" Don tapped at his own TABB as he followed her out. "There was a launch, while you and Tai were in the Pressure Chamber."
Cora blinked. "A launch? To where?"
"Oddly enough, to the surface."
Cora felt her stomach drop. "Surface probes don't launch until January. Why would my father send one up now?"
I don't know, but I was hoping you'd heard something about it.” Don shrugged like it didn't matter. “Another week, and Delphi will be ready to swim again, I promise. I can shift him up to Gold Seven if you like. Having you closer might help keep his spirits up.”
Cora was still a million miles away, but she still had enough presence of mind to smirk at that one. “Don't let my dad hear you talk that way. He'd think you were too close to the 'damn synths'.”
Nix had only followed about half of this, but she looked sadly at Delphi. “Well then. I guess this is goodbye. I'm not cleared for Gold Sector.”
Cora watched the young girl for a while and smiled. “You know what? You are now. But only for The Common Areas.”
Nix blinked. “What? Really?”
Sure. Delphi would like to have some friends around when I'm working.”
Delphi whistled. “Cora work! Delphi work! Cora wait?”
I'm sorry, partner. I had my break when I got up from the Trench. Now you get one for saving my life. Relax, eat lots of sardines, okay?”
Okay.” Delphi whistled, and even the flat computer translation couldn't hide his disappointment.
~~/*\~~
Cora had spent most of her childhood years touring the extended reach of the Ark-Hive in all their Outposts, tagging along as her father's assistant. She was always aware of how life in the ocean and life in the Habitats had their similarities.
Around the Stingray Squads, the comparison was obvious. They were sharks. The grey uniforms and the white armbands were modeled off the colors of the Stingrays that they were named for, but they moved like sharks. When they entered a room, everyone in it reacted accordingly, giving them plenty of room, when they weren't fleeing outright.
As the Director's daughter, Cora had grown up with Stingray guards. A lot of them considered her a favorite. But even in a room full of innocent people, they had a way of causing panic; the way a shark did, even when it wasn't hungry. They were predators.
And Morgan was their Commander. He reported directly to her father, and they had worked so closely together during the Purges that Cora had actually thought of him as an uncle. So she took it in stride when the elevator doors opened and she found him waiting inside for her. “Going up?”
Cora stepped inside. The doors hissed as pressure equalized in the tubes. An instant later, they were rocketing along toward Gold Level.
She sidled up next to him. "So. Anything interesting happen while I was away?"
We took a look at your submarine. She's a gorgeous thing.” Morgan reported. “Frankly, I'm jealous. If you were anyone else's daughter, I would have 'confiscated' it by now.”
Cora snorted. “Don gave you the report?”
About your accident? He gave us the full interview transcripts. While we're in an elevator and off the record, is there anything else I need to know? Any more... relevant information?”
Nope.” Cora lied smoothly. “But I'm sure my dad will find something.”
He usually does. In fact, he ordered me to leave any further questions to him.” Morgan smirked. “I think he's more worried about you and a guy being sealed up in a small Pressure Chamber for that long, Lieutenant.”
Cora snorted. “And I'm betting you knew before I did that it was a dream come true for Tai.”
"We did. But it's not our policy to peek in on such things.” Morgan told her. “Say what you want to say."
We aren't a couple. I had no idea until a few hours ago that he wanted to be one.” Cora dove right in. "But Tai is, quite rightly, terrified of how my dad will respond to the notion of a Green Sector Pilot having a crush on his daughter."
Morgan never smiled. Never more than a smirk. "I won't tell. I'm Stingray. We don't tell half the things we know."
Cora smirked tightly. "Mm. What's that going to cost me?"
Morgan still didn't let the smirk grow. "You're not implying that I can be bought, are you, Lieutenant?"
"Wouldn't dream of it." Cora said without missing a beat. "Have you noticed that you’re the only Stingray who calls me by my rank instead of ‘Miss Bridger’?"
That’s my doing. I like to remind my people that the Leadership have kids in positions that may fall under their jurisdiction. Don’t want my people ruffling the wrong fins.”
Cora matched her tone. “You’re not implying that I might seek to influence the course of justice, are you, Commander?”
Wouldn’t dream of it-” He was about to say more, when both of them froze. Their TABB's both lit up as a message came in. The visual glitched dramatically, and came back with a new feed. A rotating water droplet curved on a black background, which rotated into a perfect sphere. The sphere changed shape to show an undersea map of the earth, with the landmasses drawn in black.
The second the TABB glitched, Cora knew what she would see. So did Morgan.
"Dammit, not again!" Morgan raged, suddenly two feet taller and a whole lot more menacing. Cora eased a step away from him automatically, impossible to do in the tight space of the tube.
~~/*\~~
"Attention Members of the Ark-Hive, and all her Outposts." A heavily modulated voice reported. “You have been deceived.”
The images shifted again, showing ocean shots. Synth-Animals working. Submarines towing cargo...
In the last two weeks, more than half of all Deep Water Operations have been put on hold, citing limits in Resource Management. The orders have been manipulated and folded into other projects to conceal the fact that Gold Sector has shut down all research and development into ocean solutions. This will cause starvation on the lower levels within the year. Some people have noticed this trend.”
New images rolled past the screen. Quick shots of people's faces. Their uniforms were visible. Submariners, stall-keepers, school teachers... And then the images grew a lot more scary. It showed those same people, but the images weren't ID Photos, they were surveillance pictures of prisoners.
In the last six months, the number of people Bagged has increased 20%.” The narrator continued. “We are told this is for our protection. A suspicious mind would say this is an exercise of power. But the evidence shows it can be far more simple and shallow than that.”
There followed two quick shots. One of a woman being dragged away by a Stringray Agent. The image zoomed in quickly on the prisoner's pearl broach. A moment later it was showing a candid shot of the same Agent on a date with an attractive woman. The woman was wearing the same distinctive pearl broach.
Of the twelve people Bagged in the last six months, more than half of them were taken by this man, Agent Liko of the Stingray Squad... and one of Commander Morgan's personal Gold Sector Guards. On every arrest he has made, the prisoner's personal assets have all been seized. The official ruling is that it is part of the investigation. Agent Liko now holds more IOU's and Ration markers than anyone else on Stringray Squad.”
~~/*\~~
Cora shuddered. Nobody knew where the messages were coming from, but one of the prisoners that had flashed up on screen was their friend Alison, in chains.
By the time the pirate broadcast was over; the elevator had deposited Cora and Morgan at Gold Sector. The two of them wasted no time heading to the Boardroom. Every screen, every terminal, every TABB along the way was showing the pirate signal, until the image glitched for a moment, and they all returned to normal.
Morgan had pure thunder on his face. Cora offered him a reassuring smile. "Maybe he didn't notice?"
Morgan snorted. "You better head in. Give me another thirty seconds. I'm not going in there until I have something to tell him."
But when the Boardroom Hatch opened, Cora knew that sub had sailed. The Director himself was standing half an inch from the doors. His eyes swept over both of them instantly. “Cora!” He exhaled powerfully. “Are you alright?”
I'm fine, dad.” Cora promised. “You saw it?”
I did.” The Director hadn't taken his eyes off his daughter. "And Morgan? I'm trying very hard not to look in your direction right now." The Director said calmly. “Cora, go wait in my office.”
Cora did so, obediently. The second she was away from Morgan’s gaze, she let the disgust she felt for him show on her features, just for a second, before she waved at her father’s assistant and went into the private office. She could hear her father's icy voice slicing away at Morgan, and her ears followed the conversation further down the hall. The instant they were out of earshot, she made it from the doorway to her father's desk in two long steps. Before she had even sat down in her father's chair, she had tapped in his passcode at his terminal.
It took her only a few seconds to read the Stingray Reports. Alison had been Bagged, and was currently being 'held and questioned'. Cora felt a shiver. Her fingers hesitated over the interface for a moment, before sending a new command. As far as Stingray was concerned, The Director had just ordered them to let Alison go within two days, unless she gave them something relevant.
A few more moments, and Cora had found the results of the surface probe. The report had come in as normal, and her father had received it, and then changed the clearance level to maximum... but not until days later.
Now why would he seal the file up a week after getting it? Cora asked herself. What was he afraid of?
She noticed the original file had a date attached. The original report had been sent on to a few select people. Morgan, Amos... and her?
Immediately, Cora checked her TABB. The one that Don had given back to her. The one that Alison had when Cora was out at the Trench. She tapped at the screen quickly, and found that her TABB had received the copy of the message, just as her father's computer said... and that it had been forwarded to someone else, while Cora was in the Pressure Chamber with Tai.
Oh, Hades.” Cora hissed, sucking in a breath. She checked the date, and realized. The implications left her trembling. She felt like she was trying to breathe through a straw.
That was the day that Alison got Bagged.
She knew her father's office like the back of her hand, and she could hear the faint sound of her father's voice. He was on his way back, and she knew exactly how long it took him to get from the conference room to his Private Office.
Quickly and efficiently, she started tapping at her father's computer, covering up or deleting what she had seen. It took half a second longer than she would like, and she had to dive back into her chair, just as the door opened. "I thought you had the Pirate Station handled." Cora said as her father walked in. Her voice was cool and relaxed, giving no sign that she'd nearly been busted snooping through her father's files.
"I said we had the signal handled." The Director countered. "It’s been fifteen years since we shut down the Aquans. The Pirate Station went quiet after the Purges. I don’t know who brought it back, but the Aquans have been wiped out. Whoever’s using their old playbook has his own agenda.” The Director nodded curtly. His expression didn't change much. Cora had spent her life trying to figure out if he still had feelings. After the death of her mother, he had withdrawn completely. “Now then... are you alright?”
Cora smiled a little. “I'm fine, dad.”
Good. What happened out there?”
Well, I was unconscious for a lot of it, but the engine took damage from somewhere, and couldn't handle the pressure. Sub lost guidance, and everything went sideways.” Cora waved a hand back and forth like it didn't matter. “Tai saved my life.”
Mm.” The Director grunted. “I don't like the idea of you being out there for so long alone with a guy.”
Don't worry, dad. I've had all my birth control shots.” Cora said blithely.
Her father had a vein throbbing in his neck. “Not funny.”
You're aware I'm twenty-two, right?”
I don't approve of that either.” Her father took the hint and moved on. “My overpaid sources tell me that you docked almost an hour ago. I assume you had good reason for not coming to see your father first?”
I wanted to check in on Delphi.” Cora nodded. Her father gave her a look, like she was a silly child, and she jumped on the defensive. “He saved my life, dad. He nearly killed himself getting back to tell someone that me and Tai were stranded. How can I not worry about someone who nearly kills themselves to help me?”
Not someone, Cora. It's a Synth. It's only alive because someone in a lab thought it would make a good working animal. You don't get choked up over the animals we breed for livestock; and they keep you alive every time you have a meal. Don't get emotional over them.”
Anyway, that's where I was.” Cora didn't agree with him. She couldn't.
I was... worried.” He admitted, but his expression still didn't change. “We went over the Hydra Hawk with a fine tooth comb. No sign of sabotage.”
Didn't think there would be.” Cora shook her head. “This was an accident, plain and simple.”
Not so simple. The engines were completely ground to scrap. The gears failed. So either interface error put the engines into overload and blew them out, or the moving parts seized up.” He gave her a look. “We didn't find any sign of Interface error. You were at the controls? Your co-pilot?”
In the airlock when it went wrong.” Cora confirmed. “Nothing wrong with the controls.”
Then it was a maintenance issue. I've already had the relevant personnel investigated, two arrests made for incompetence.”
Cora's mouth became a very thin line. “You did that without hearing from me first?”
What did you know that I didn't?” Her father asked practically. “If your sub engines could fail, who's to say others couldn't? There was a mistake that very nearly cost your life. And by Sub Implosion, no less.”
Cora winced. Officially, submarine implosion had killed her mother. “I’m sorry I missed the anniversary.”
First time it’s happened; and it wasn’t your fault. Now then.” Her father moved past the whole topic quickly. “There is a Board Meeting tomorrow morning at 0930 hours. I want you there.”
Cora felt a thrill of horror go through her. She'd been dreading this since she became a pilot. “Okay, Dad... I get that the last two weeks have pushed a lot of buttons for both of us, but we agreed when I told you I wanted to train as a Driver that you couldn't keep me locked up in the Ark-Hive my whole life. And at this point, it's more important to-”
I'm not telling you to resign from the Corps. In fact, your status as a highly-rated pilot will become a major asset soon.” Her father interrupted. His tone was cool, but not harsh; which was pretty warm for him. “But I need you there at the meeting this time.”
Why?” Cora asked, intrigued.
Now why would I waste time telling you that when you could just show up and find out?”
~~/*\~~
Cora made her way to Gold Seven. Centuries before, one of her ancestors had used this room as her laboratory, but now it was a common area for Gold Sector residents. The large room had a raised moon pool that came up to waist height. Space was the most precious currency in the Ark-Hive,
Construction of the Ark-Hive had been done in total secrecy. But Cora had seen the records. The residents had barely made it off land. The submarines they used were varied, and in a lot of cases, the only ones left after Total Collapse.
None of the originals were left, of course; but the more modern manufactures were all based on the original designs. A lot of them were unrecognizable after so many generations of innovation and new materials, but the structure of the Ark-Hive was unchanged by centuries; it just added new compartments at various levels.
And in Gold Seven, there was a museum for the few artifacts of the surface that had survived, or been found in one piece at the bottom of the ocean.
At that time of night, it should have been empty, and Cora found only one other person was there. It was the girl that had been keeping Delphi company while he healed. Nix was sitting at the edge of the pool with Delphi, but her eyes were roving over everything, having never seen any artifacts from the surface before. Cora watched her silently for a while. The young girl was focused on the photos of when the Ark-Hive opened. Back then, there were no lights set up around the structure, the ground was wild and rocky. Back then, the view from the Dome was thick with murky, poisoned water.
Cora couldn't help but compare it to the view she had through the Dome now. Nix was looking back and forth, obviously thinking the same thing. The centuries had made the oceans clean and healthier than they'd ever been.
Did you know that Dolphins and Whales used to breathe air, like we do?” Cora said by way of introduction.
Nix jumped in surprise and spun to look back at Cora as Delphi whistled a greeting. “Really?”
Oh yes. They all died out in the early 2080's. Of all the ocean creatures, they had to breathe the air.” Cora gestured at the early pictures. “Back then, the air was even more toxic than the water. Professor McKay, the first Director, went out in a clunky metal sub, using searchlights with barely enough light to see twenty feet, and searched the entire Ocean floor for their bodies. He went out there alone, for weeks. The Admiralty said that he was wasting his time; but McKay did it. He found enough of them. It took them weeks to record a genome back then... It took them over a decade to restore a viable clone; let alone synth some gills into them; let alone enough to repopulate the species. But they did it.” Cora stroked her fingers over the Dolphin's side, and he chattered happily at her. Cora looked back at Nix and gestured at the museum. “Ever seen any of these artifacts before?”
Nix shook her head. “I told you, my first time in Gold Sector.”
Cora nodded. “It's not right that they never let you see what's in here.” She shook her head. “But that's for tomorrow. Go home, Nix. It's late.”
Nix yawned. “Yes, ma'am.”
I told you not to call me that.” Cora shooed her away and knelt down next to Delphi once they were alone. “Hey you. How you feeling?”
Cora sad.” Delphi whistled back. “What's wrong?”
Cora sighed. Dolphins were just too perceptive. “Kind of everything, right now.” She checked to make sure they were alone and kissed Delphi's beak. “Some days, Delphi... you're the only one I trust.” She sighed. “I'm sorry you're cooped up in here.”
Swim.” Delphi squeaked. “Ride the deeps. Go fast.”
We will.” Cora promised. “Soon.”
Cora sad. Why?”
Cora smiled a little. Dolphins, of all the creatures in the oceans, were the only ones to wonder 'why'. “What do you think of Tai?”
Tai friend. My friend. Your friend. Tai loves you.”
Yeah, so I've heard.” She smirked. “You could have told me.”
Cora love Tai?”
Cora checked her readout to make sure it was a question and not a statement. “Yeah. I think I do.” She admitted with a sigh.
Why sad?”
It's complicated.”
Delphi let out a series of clicks and whistles that didn't really need to be translated. “Humans are weird.”
Cora let out a bark of laughter before she could stop herself. “Yeah. Yeah, we are.” She rose. “For what it's worth, I like you more than most people I know... And I have to go and have a difficult conversation now.”
~~/*\~~
In the Life Sciences Department, Don was working late. He turned his attention back to his terminal after pausing to get a cup of fresh Caff, and found someone had let themselves into his private office. “Cora. You're up late.” Don remarked.
I know why Alison was arrested.” Cora said darkly without preamble.
Don reacted, and sent a subtle glance up at the omnipresent cameras. The indicator light was off. The cameras had been switched off for this conversation, and that was no small trick.
I left my Personal TABB with Alison, so that she could replace the strap with one she'd made for me.” Cora made her case. “I was meant to be back in a few hours, but things happened in the Macallan Trench, and I didn't get back for weeks. The day I went, my father launched a surface probe. I was given a copy of the results, just as I always am. My father wanted me to have them. But someone tried to change the results, and they did it from my TABB. The one I left behind. I think that Alison hacked my passwords somehow.”
Don looked at her evenly. “Well, I suppose that sub sailed, didn't it? Alison was Bagged weeks ago.”
Quite. But there's more.” Cora nodded. “While I was in my father's office, I took the liberty of reading the arrest report.”
You get Stingray reports too?”
No, but that didn't stop me.” Cora blew past that. “Morgan's people took Alison's TABB apart, looking for whoever she might be speaking with. But they were looking at the wrong device. Since she had my TABB, she would have my mail. So Ally got a look at some classified material...” She let a breath out hard. “Don. You were the one that gave back my TABB when I got home. You had it waiting for me here in the bottom drawer of your own desk. So you either took it from Morgan; and you’re not that insane… or Ally gave it to you before she was Bagged.”
Don said nothing for a moment. “A... small lapse.”
A small lapse that got you caught, old man.” Cora said angrily. “This whole time, I've been trying to figure out why Tai left the sub, that deep in the Macallan. When he confessed, part of me wondered if Tai was really in love with me, or if he was using that as an excuse, because he was hiding something else. And finally, it hit me: Why couldn't it be both?”
Don said nothing.
Cora laid it out. “You got me to ask my father about the Probe Launch, because when Ally hacked my TABB, she didn't forward my mail to you. She sent it to Tai! She was formerly his apprentice.” She tapped her TABB screen. “I have the proof right here. A message, forwarded to Tai. Morgan didn't catch on, because you had my TABB hidden in your desk before he found it.” She started listing on her fingers. “So you knew Tai had whatever classified information Ally found, and you came out to the Pressure Chamber to conduct the interviews before Morgan could do it.” She glared hard at him. “But either Tai didn't have the nerve to tell you while I was three feet away, or he couldn't receive his messages through miles of water. So you took a detour to salvage our drifting submarine yourself, so you could search it before towing her home.”
That's a really bold story on some awfully thin evidence, Cora.” Don said without letting his expression give anything away.
It is thin.” Cora agreed. “But real life usually is.” She sent a glance up at the camera, still switched off. “And how much does Stingray need, anyway? Especially for you. You know that Morgan thinks Life Sciences is full of Aquan spies already.”
That he does.” Don conceded.
"Tai is an Aqua." Cora declared with grim certainty. "And once I figured that out, it took no time at all to realize that you were the one that recruited him. Or at the very least, you're his contact man."
Don shook his head slowly. "You're too damn smart for your own good sometimes, sweetie."
"You aren't the first to say so." Cora said with a cold smirk... before coming over and sitting with him comfortably. "Look, I wasn't able to kill the report from the surface this time, but I muddled up all the traces of the transmission on my TABB and I put a typo in dad's order to send me a copy. If Morgan ever follows the same thread I did, he'll figure it was a clerical error. You and Tai are safe."
Don let out a breath, relieved. "You're invaluable, did I ever tell you that?"
"Many times, but I still like hearing it." Cora smiled warmly. "Why didn't you tell me Tai was an Aquan too? My own Co-Pilot, Don? I'm in the middle of three different situations with Tai, and I would have liked to have known we had this in common."
"I know. I wanted to tell you, but when I found out that you and Tai were becoming more than friendly, I didn't know if this would be good for you, or bad for everyone else." Don explained. "It was a mistake. One that very nearly gave you two a fatal case of the Bends."
"If I'd known he had a mission too, I could have done a much better job of covering for him." Cora agreed. "As it is, my father thinks the sub was sabotaged. You're lucky. If I was anyone else's daughter, he would have had me locked up in the Quay by now."
Silence.
"Well. Now you know." Don said quietly.
Cora held up a hand. "No. No, I don't. What were we doing down there? My dad thinks I was there to place the earthquake sensors in the Trench Walls. My mission for you was to make sure they didn't read anything below the halfway point. Tai was there for something else entirely. What's in that Trench that you don't want my dad, or Commander Morgan to find?"
Don sighed. "The Macallan Trench isn't it. It goes too deep for us anyway. It's the caves that matter."
Cora drew the map in her head. The Macallan Trench went so deep it probably reached all the way through to the Atlantic. Nothing that went in lasted past the halfway point. Anything that made it to the bottom would be crushed to the tiniest size.
But about a hundred feet below the rim, were a series of caves. They were small and hard to get to, and in a rather hazardous bit of ocean. The Ark-Hive was constantly monitoring for tremors...
Cora realized. "It's a cache, isn't it? You've got something hidden out there!"
"In the caves." Don nodded. "And before you ask, I won't tell you what, and you know why. We keep secrets for the same reason we carry extra oxygen breathers in our subs."
"I know." Cora nodded. "Okay, none of my business. But you really should have told me. Because Tai left the submarine. I didn't know it was part of the mission, official or secret. He left the sub on his own, after I planted the last of the rigged sensors in the Trench Wall..."
Don winced. "It was you. The engines didn't cave from the pressure, it was you."
Cora nodded quickly, glancing to the camera. Still off. "I couldn't let him spend too long thinking. So... yeah, I shutdown the engine and kicked the revs up. Metal grinding on metal got his attention real fast, but..."
"But the engine blew out with so much water on it, and your diversion nearly got you killed." Don nodded. "Does Tai know this?"
"I hope not. My little improv got two maintenance staff Bagged, just because my dad couldn't think of anything else to do! To say nothing of Alison!"
Don winced. “It was a mistake to keep you both in the dark about each other.”
Yes, it was. One that we never make again.” Cora came to her point. "I want Tai as my full time partner."
Don looked over. "Really?"
"I know it's a problem, putting two agents together too long." Cora nodded. "But call it a hunch. Graduation is in a few weeks, and I'll be given an apprentice. You know my dad's going to choose one for me personally. If I'm going to have a pair of eyes on me every minute, I need someone in my corner."
"You talk to Tai about this?"
"Not yet." Cora sighed. “Because solving the mystery didn't fix the problem. Whatever those reports from the surface said, we couldn't alter them, and if Tai was smart, he deleted everything the second we got within range of the Ark-Hive.”
He did.” Don confirmed. “I have no idea what your father knows about the surface.”
I'll say it again: Surface probes don't launch until January. Why would my father send one up now?" Her hands started to shake. "And why would he wait until I was off the Ark-Hive?"
"I don't know. The timing may be a coincidence, but it has me worried." Don admitted. "Maybe it's a coincidence, maybe he suspects something. The good news is, Ally got caught trying to change those reports from your TABB.”
Good? She got Bagged!”
Well no, not good. But she did it while you were away from the Ark-Hive, so if The Director has doubts about you; they'll be mollified."
Cora nodded. “Wayde tells me that the... routine is being altered. Some of our more Ocean-Based resources are being curtailed.”
Don nodded. "If there's a crackdown coming, it couldn't be at a worse time. Things are accelerating in preparation for Exodus. I wish we could slow it down and play it safe, but the rest of the team is getting nervous. After the surface probe launched, the rumors started going crazy. If he's looking at the surface again, then it's because he thinks there's something new to find. This one isn't routine."
Cora let out a breath. “I know that Rule Number One is not to ask for details on other cell groups... but I'm one of the few people who knows that you're not just part of the Aquan Movement, you're the Leader of it. So, can I ask you a question?”
Three years.” Don was way ahead of her. “In three years, we'll be ready for a self-sufficient colony of our own, and can live totally independent of the Ark-Hive. If I can get enough Resources together to breed us some more working animals, and the rest of our network can harvest enough supplies to see us through our own growing seasons, then we can live entirely off the ocean; the way we always wanted to.”
Three years.” Cora chewed her lip. “So we just have to buy ourselves time.”
Time is a tricky animal when you have a Big Secret, Cora.” Don said warmly. “But if anyone can do it, we can.” He spread his arms wide. “And by the way, I am so glad to have you back safe!”
Cora stepped into his gentle hug, and she returned it gratefully. "I wish you were my father." Cora whispered impulsively in his ear.
His fingers tightened on her shoulder for a moment, and he drew back a little. "You father is not a bad person, Cora." Don said gently. "He's just not open. Not to the future, not to people who disagree with him... not even to his daughter. That doesn't make him a bad guy, or even a bad father. We could be planning to strike, but we only wish to leave and make our way."
Cora looked down, a little uncomfortable by what she'd confessed.
Don gave her a smile. "Hey. Half of you came from him, so he can't be too bad."
Cora smiled a bit. A real smile this time.
Don checked his watch. “Six minutes. You better get that camera back on.”
And I've apparently got an early start in the morning too.” Cora nodded and turned to go, heading for the door before the cameras came back online.
~~/*\~~
143 Days to Landfall
~~/*\~~
One look at Tai was all she needed. He knew. Don had talked to him sometime during the night. He knew they had something in common. “Hey, Cora?” He called. “I need a Co-Pilot. Twenty minute run, just to the Quay and back. You busy?”
Not at the moment.” Cora said smoothly. “Let me get my Suit.”
~~/*\~~
Cora and Tai spoke only of their instruments for the first ten minutes, until they reached the halfway point in their journey.
Cora set her controls to automatic and swiveled her chair to face him directly. Now. Right now.
Tai read her expression and gave her a quick nod, pulling back his sleeve to reveal his TABB. He tapped at the display for a moment, and Cora subtly glanced at the camera. The light had flicked off. "Have you ever done that on the Hydra before?"
"Never had the nerve." He excused. “We've got two minutes or less before someone gets suspicious.”
"So. I know why Don didn't tell me." Cora said quietly. "Why didn't you?"
"Same reason you didn't tell me." Don told her kindly. "Because I didn't know you were with us, and rule number one when you have a dangerous secret is not to tell anybody."
Cora let out a breath. "Weeks we were locked in that Chamber, and I was tiptoeing around words, wondering if you were suspicious..."
"I went through the same thing." He admitted ruefully. "And, no offense, but it was a lot worse for me. I'm a Green Level Sub-Driver. You're The Director's Daughter!"
Cora actually burst out laughing. "And here you were, worried we didn't have anything in common. The biggest thing we could ever have, and neither of us dared to mention it."
Tai laughed too. "Tell me about it."
Cora settled. "You know... Even if we could only talk about nothing..." She felt herself blush a little. "You have no idea how much I enjoyed sitting and talking about nothing with you." She saw the suddenly hopeful look on his face and sighed. "It's true. Those weeks in the Pressure Chamber, it was the first time in forever that I could forget about everything else." She looked down. "Tai-"
"Oh, you're gonna hurt me now, aren't you?"
"Probably." She admitted. "When I found out you were one of us, I started reliving every conversation I ever had with you. And I'd already done that once, when I found out... Well..."
"We agreed." He reminded her. "Never have to mention it again."
"I know." She nodded. "But my point is, I've been thinking about it a lot." Her gaze softened. "We had some good times, didn't we? I mean, we've been partners a while, even before all this."
"We did." He nodded. He’d noticed she was using the past-tense.
Cora took his hand, holding it between hers. She knew she was almost taunting him now; she could even feel his heart speed up. "Tai, I've been talking to Don, and I've been talking to my father. Something is coming. I don't know what yet, but dice are rolling."
"I think so too." He nodded.
"There's a moment between letting go of the dice, and when they hit the table. Breathe wrong in that moment, you change how the dice come up. That moment is coming." Cora whispered. "I feel like I'm holding my breath, and I don't know what to do about anything else." She sighed and squeezed his fingers a moment. "Having you around... it's like there's more oxygen."
Tai smiled. "It's how I feel about you, Shells. Even if nothing between us happens... It's just easier to breathe when you're around."
They sat silently a moment, comfortable with the moment. Then Cora turned back to the controls. "All right, Stripes. We've got places to be."
~~/*\~~
Cora checked her dress uniform. It had never really been comfortable to wear, but as a member of the Corps, she was required to wear her dress uniform when in the presence of the Board of Directors. They were each the heads of their Departments and that made them the most powerful people on the Ark-Hive, so it was a firm rule. She checked the time again, unwilling to be early or late, and she was about to head in... when Wayde stopped her before she got to the door. “Excuse me, Miss Cora; you can't go in there.”
Cora checked the time. “I was told to be here at 0930.”
Yes Ma'am, but the meeting started at 0900. The Director ordered me to make sure you didn't get in earshot until early business was tabled. You don't have the clearance.”
Cora set her jaw. “My father wanted me here, but he didn't want me to hear anything that was said?”
Not until 0930.” Her father's assistant said firmly.
Wayde, is this how it always is? Speak of secret things early, and then invite in the riffraff like me?” Cora said with a smile, but she was fishing for information.
Wayde gave her nothing. “I really couldn't say.”
~~/*\~~
Cora waited impatiently, wishing Tai was there, or that she at least had someone to talk to that wasn't as completely in her father's pocket as Wayde. Finally, her TABB chimed the half hour and she headed in before Wayde could stop her again.
We've got three different readings.” Her father was saying into his headset. “The readings are changing every hour. Check the equipment and give me a fixed result. Launch another if you have to!" He turned to the door and waved Cora over to sit on his left, his assistant to sit on his right. “Amos, the relocation plans aren't acceptable; I need a timetable that works. You’re the Department Head for a reason.”
Due respect sir, but six months is not enough time.” DH Amos insisted, with a nervous glance at Cora. “We can meet the deadline, if we had more people on side and helping with preliminaries.”
In good time.” The Director looked to his daughter. “Cora, I get nothing but blank looks from my Yes Men; so I'll ask you: Can you explain to me why everyone in the E-Ring of Green Sector keeps wanting to change rooms?”
Cora didn't have a clue what they were talking about, but knew that asking for details wouldn't get her anywhere. “You don't know?” She said aloud. “E-Ring is where the water ducts run closest to the habitats. All the water pipes that feed seawater into the dynamos? It's like living next to a toilet that never stops flushing. That's white noise after a while, but, the E-Ring is where everyone gets put when they get too big to live with their parents...” She sent her father a secret smirk. Because people below Gold Sector are crammed in tight.
Amos was kicking himself for not seeing it. "We could look into changing some of the rooms status; change them from temporary living quarters to full time storage..."
Cora shrugged. "If you want. I think that the people who live there are only here for a while; and they like having their rooms closer to their assignments." She noticed the jug of fruit juice on the boardroom table. "Is this for anyone?"
Help yourself.” Her father looked from his display to the jug as though he hadn't known it was on the table. “Every department head and captain in the room, and none of you know the place you live in well enough to understand that? I'd fire you all and let my daughter run the place, but she doesn't want to.” Not one of them could look at him, or at Cora, and he returned to business. "Now then, on with the regular meeting. Wayde? First item on the agenda?"
"Same as always." Wayde told him. "Resource Management."
"I think we all knew that was coming." Don commented lightly, provoking a grim chuckle from the room. The agenda didn't change much from week to week. For all that the Ark-Hive had succeeded in, it was still a closed system. Every time the population grew or shrank by more than a few members, every time a new outpost was sanctioned or shut down, every time a new project was begun or canceled, it required taking those resources from somewhere else. Being the Director meant your first duty was to make all the children play nice and make sure none of them went without supper for too long.
Anyone want to be the first one in?” The Director asked.
I will.” Don raised a hand. “I've run the numbers, and our planned Whale-Synths won't eat more than the Air-Breathing kind. Now that we've reintroduced the Sperm Whale and Narwhal species into the wild, we have an opportunity-”
We also have more food.” Amos put in. “With the whale breeding done, we have enough food stores that we can free up a dozen breeding tanks. Why spend those resources on another science experiment when-”
Because it doesn't cost us anything more than it did a week ago.” Don interrupted back. “We keep those breeding tanks open, and in return I can give you Heavy Movers that will never break down, and will breed more Movers without construction.” He smirked at Amos. “Build me a submarine that can do that.”
A whale is not a reliable work machine.” Amos said, and the entire Board leaned back in their chairs. It was clearly an old argument.
Amos, you’re the head of our Engineering department. By definition, you only trust things you build yourself. But: pound for pound, a whale can tow as much weight as a Heavy Sub.” Don insisted. “With the right harnesses, it can even carry more cargo.” He turned to Cora. “We have an experienced Sub-Pilot that works extensively with a regular Synth-Dolphin partner. Ask her!”
They both turned to Cora, and she hesitated. Her father gestured for attention before she was forced to take sides. "I agree it has potential." The Director said, and Don deflated. Cora knew why, because she had heard it before too. When her father opened by agreeing with you, it meant he was about to shoot you down. "But your time is needed more urgently elsewhere." He checked his notes. "At least, it's about to be, all going well. Plus, we don't know how much longer we're going to be down here, and as with everything we turn loose from our laboratories we have to consider what the long term effects will be. The underwater species in particular will continue long after we return to the surface; and we're already taking liberties with what the future of our oceans will look like."
"We have lived under the ocean for a long time.” Don pointed out. “Humans are slow to adapt to change, but remarkably adaptable once they accept the need. We live under the water, we need Ocean Solutions."
"One could almost call that an Aquan Philosophy." The Director commented blandly, and everyone tensed a little.
Don took it in stride. "And if they said night followed day, would it be treason to agree with that? I'm in the business of ideas, Director. Old ones, new ones. As long as they improve. Where it came from is less important than where it leads."
"In that, we agree." The Director nodded, and the room relaxed. Cora let out a breath she hadn't realized she was holding.
Cora received a Private Message on her TABB, and checked it discreetly. It was from her father. Throw Don and Amos a bone. Both of them. Something you can provide personally. Do it before the meeting breaks up.
"Actually, Doctor?" Cora said aloud, as though she'd just thought of it. "I was looking over your schedule for the month, and I was wondering why the Algae Batteries were still on the 'untested' list. Outpost Sidon could really use a portable biofuel generator right now."
"I know." Don agreed. "But it needs to be tested under real world strain. The schedule is so tight, nobody can put up a spare submarine for a proper test flight."
"I can." Cora told him, and everyone looked over, surprised. If The Director's Daughter had a spare submarine lying around, they wanted to know about it. "I'm slated to make a Habitat Drop this afternoon. I was planning to hitch a ride with the Nemo's Larder, but my Hydra Hawk can handle it."
"Hold on." Her father put a hand up. "The Hydra isn't rated for a Habitat Drop."
"That's because it doesn't have the range." Cora told him. "But I can change the batteries from the inside myself. If these Algae Tanks are all they're supposed to be, I can make the trip, even with the nets."
Amos smirked at Don. "And if they're not, then your prized 'Ocean Solutions' will have stranded The Director's Daughter halfway to the Outpost Ranges."
Don sent Amos a light glare, no love lost between them. "They'll work. We know they'll work." Don promised, suddenly eager to have a volunteer. "Procedure means we have to prove it, and if-"
Cora cut him off. "Actually, now that I think of it, I can take a copilot along and rendezvous on the return trip with the DSV Defiance. Commander Amos, your trainees need a supervisor, and if I have a copilot, I can peel off and supervise their next Scenario on my way back."
"That could work." Amos said with a nod. "It's a blind test, so they won't know the difference."
One trip, three tasks. And shared evenly across the different departments, no less. The Director glanced around subtly. Everyone had their own agendas in this room, and had to share the same resources. And by the simple act of having his daughter present, he was winning people to his cause. He was gaining support for his daughter. He sent her another Private Message: You're a natural.
Cora received the message and showed no reaction, tapping a response. It must be genetic.
~~/*\~~
She got away from the meeting as quickly as she could. Her father summoned her right back in to have more private conversations. Anyone who didn't get what they wanted during the meeting, she had to make nice with. Anyone who did get their way, she had to learn more about the project in question, so that she understood it fluently.
You work in the Domes.” Her father told her. “You work with the people who have to transport things, and have to do things. Time for you to learn the other half of how this place works.”
I have you for that.” Cora had countered.
Ahh, but I won't be around forever.”
Cora hadn't responded to that, but the Aquan plan was always to gather enough supplies... and escape the Ark-Hive's reach, en masse. She had always planned for a future where her father would never find her. Having him move her closer to a leadership role was becoming... uncomfortable.
She wanted to talk to Don, but he was a Board Member, and the others would notice if she gave him special attention. Instead, she went to visit Delphi.
He was gone.
~~/*\~~
It took Cora a while to track them down. In the Hangar, in one of the secondary Moon Pools, Cora found Tai at the edge of the water, lashing a familiar Dolphin to a Sled. "Hey there." Cora came up behind him. "How are my two favorite boys?"
Delphi chattered eagerly. "Get boat! Go fast! Ride The Deeps! Ride the Wake!"
Cora giggled. It was the happiest she'd seen him since the accident. “You decided to go swimming without me?”
Tai smirked back. “You had a meeting. Don said that Delphi couldn't handle ocean swimming yet, but he was miserable. I keep him lashed to the sled, and he won't pull those stitches.” He tickled the dolphin's beak. “You've surfed the wake before, buddy. Gotta let me handle it this time, okay?”
Delphi chattered, eager to go.
Cora beamed, already pulling at the collar of her uniform. “I'm going with you.”
~~/*\~~
The sled jets were mounted at the base of the sled, on either side of Delphi’s tail. The jets frothed as Tai dove, and Delphi squealed as he turned up the thrust to maximum. Cora held on to one of the grips, and Tai to the other, with the Dolphin between them.
It was like dancing. Cora had never learned to dance, but here she was, with two of her favorite people, twisting and wheeling through the water. The Cleaners and Maintenance Workers all looked at the odd trio as they passed. Most of them were smiling at the sight. Cora waved back at them, enjoying the moment.
Tai turned the sled upward, climbing along the structure of the Ark-Hive. It seemed smaller this way, winding in and out of the spaces between the towers that supported the domes and met at the apex of their home. At every level, there were Aquarium Tubes that housed all the working animals and project creatures of the Ark-Hive. On the higher levels, there were windows and viewing platforms.
Cora saw people pointing at them, and she couldn't help but burst out laughing. She looked back to Delphi, and saw he was having the same reaction. Dolphins were always smiling, but she could feel his glee radiating off him.
She looked a little further, and saw Tai. He was keeping one eye on their course, and the other on the two of them. He was making whirls and spins and turns, for no reason but to make them both smile. He was guiding them up around the structure, for no reason but to show the whole Ark-Hive how much fun they were having. The affection on his face was a living thing, and Cora suddenly felt so... free.
Above the Ark-Hive, some of the synth-whales were circling, as always. They saw the humans taking the dolphin for a flight, and their song changed subtly. There was always a background sound of whalesong, as water conducted sound perfectly, but they sang a new song for the wounded dolphin and his friends; and their dolphin dance had music.
After another moment, Cora noticed that the other Synth-Dolphins had noticed. They all knew each other, of course, and they knew that Delphi had been sick, but seeing him race again set them all off, and Cora suddenly found herself surrounded. Almost a dozen dolphins broke away from their duties and came running to swim in perfect formation with them. She felt their beaks press into her back, suddenly making her go faster and faster... before all the newcomers exploded away from them in a burst of movement and sound!
It was such a wonderful dance. It was an experience of pure joy. After weeks of wondering about Tai's loyalties, weeks of worrying about Delphi’s health, weeks of worrying about her father's agendas... A few minutes in the water with them, just feeling the ocean welcome her into itself, feeling the current hold her up and part before her as she moved... She hadn't felt so complete and content in a long time.
I would do anything to have this dance last forever.
And then her TABB chimed, as if to answer her. She checked the message. Time was up.
Tai knew it too. They gaze met across the dolphin's back, and she could see him having the same thought. They didn't want it to end. They wanted to keep going. They were almost willing to go right away and never go back.
Okay, time to get you back inside.” Tai said finally, and Cora sighed, surrendering to the inevitable.
No! Swim more!” Delphi chattered.
Sorry, Delphi. I promised Don, no more than an hour. You still need time to heal your insides.”
Go back up to Gold Seven. Nix is there, and she has sardines.” Cora told him, helping Tai steer the sled back to the conduits. “Don't swim too hard. Let yourself float.”
Okay.” Delphi chattered. “Swim more later?”
We will.” Cora and Tai promised in unison.
~~/*\~~
Cora and Tai climbed up one of the side ladders into the Hangar, keeping out of the larger craft's way. They could have come in the conduit with Delphi and stepped out in Gold Sector; or anywhere else in the Ark-Hive, but the tunnels were narrow for a pair of humans, and procedure was to enter through the Main Dock.
Cora was peeking at Tai all the way back inside, and then kept glancing back, every time there was a lull in the activity. She was still staring as Tai went to check the manifests while she was deep in thought. He came back over and reported to her. "The Hawk's new batteries have been installed. Power levels seem nominal. You should see the things."
"The Algae batteries?" Cora nodded. "I've seen them. Never seen them hooked up to a sub before, but I'm told they work as good as the rechargeable kind."
Yeah, well, that's for us to prove, I guess.”
That was a nice thing you did for Delphi.” Cora put in. “If it was up to my father, he would have had Delphi put down, and given me a new Dolphin partner.”
Tai was a little caught off guard by the shift in conversation. “Yeah, well... For all the talk about how much humanity belongs in the ocean, nobody ever asks where the Synth's belong. I don't like the idea of them being so... replaceable. Especially not him. He needs oceans as much as I do. I didn't want him to forget the part that he loved most about being a Dolphin.”
Cora stared at him a long moment.
Tai tried to shrug the attention off like it wasn't a big deal. “So, the batteries are being installed, and they'll be ready for testing in another twenty minutes or so. I've already spoken to Ops about merging our missions. They're always happy to free up a Sub, even if only for an hour.”
Cora was still just looking at his face, deciding something.
He tensed a little under her scrutiny. “What? Do I have something on my face?”
Finally, Cora spoke. "Tai, do you remember what we were talking about on the way back from the Pressure Chamber?" She said quietly. "That subject that we never got back to, and agreed we wouldn't have to talk about again?"
Tai looked sharply, surprised. "Yeah."
"Just in case you ever wondered when it happened for me? It was just now."
Tai was stunned, until an amazing smile bloomed on his face.
Cora nodded, not a trace of hesitation. "Anyway, I need a co-pilot. I'm doing a shakedown of the new battery equipment. Are you busy?"
"Not at all." Tai agreed.
~~/*\~~
The two of them, very calmly went to the Submarine Bay and stepped into the Hydra Hawk. Tai took the copilot's chair and called for clearance to leave.
All of it was very routine, very practiced.
Is this what life with him will be like? Cora asked herself as the Hydra sped away from everyone, leaving them alone in the ocean. With barely a glance at him, she reached under her console and hit the switch that jammed the listening devices. It wasn't uncommon for them to go for long stretches without saying anything.
Tai licked his lips for a moment, and then keyed a button on his console. The turbine controls between them retracted, to give them both room to stand up. But instead of standing, they turned their seats toward each other, and leaned in close for a soft, lingering kiss.
They broke the kiss but stayed close, resting their foreheads together, breathing each other.
"Hm." He sighed. "Life just got a lot more complicated, didn't it?"
She smiled happily. "Oh yeah, we're good and doomed." She kissed him quickly again, and then pulled back. "Well, you're doomed. Dad can vanish you much easier than me."
"You're worth it."
"Love you, Stripes." She murmured.
"Love you, Shells." He murmured back.