Sunday, 11 March 2018

06 Chapter Six: "You're Aquans!"



Tai sent Cora a soft look. Cora returned it but only briefly. Usually, their trip back from the Dark Water would be the longest they had alone together. But now they had two more people on board. People who might be allies, but were more likely to tell her father things that they didn’t dare let him find out.
Nix wouldn’t stop yapping about the whale to Tai. She told him everything, and then she told him again. Ben, on the other hand, focused his attention on Cora. He had questions. About the Cache they had collected, about the people at Cameron Outpost, about how Lapthorne usually did things.
Cora did her best to answer his questions without actually telling him anything. She knew that of the two of them, Ben was the more likely to be put with her permanently.
But then, as they approached the Light Waters around the Ark-Hive, something happened.
Hydra Hawk, we have you on our screens.” The radio crackled. “Status?”
Tai answered. “Mission accomplished, Ark-Hive. Ship and crew are well. Uploading telemetry and mission reports now.” He tapped at his terminal for several seconds, when the screen suddenly went blank. “What the…”
The screen came back, this time with 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.
Another Pirate Hack?” Ben seemed perturbed.
"Attention Members of the Ark-Hive, and all her Outposts." A heavily modulated voice reported. “You have been deceived.”
Nix watched the screen with open fear. “Should we be watching this?” She sent a glance to the omnipresent monitors and cameras. “I mean, isn’t this…”
Don’t stress, kid.” Cora soothed her. “The entire Ark-Hive is seeing this. Ditto for the colonies. Even the Stingray’s can only do so much to keep us all in line.”
~~/*\~~
Even now, the Hydra Hawk, the only submarine permitted to run Aquan tech, is coming in to dock at the Ark-Hive. It’s mission was the capture and return of a Cache of precious items from the days of the surface dwelling. These valuables are the only resource that can never be replaced, copied, or adapted from anything else.”
The screen flashed, showing hints of the antiques. Things that nobody alive would recognize. Memorabilia of all kinds, actual paper books and photographs, various keepsakes that the original colonists would never have gotten back.
There have been seven discoveries of such caches in the last five years. But the general population of the Ark-Hive has only been made aware of two of them. The rest, are locked away in Gold Sector, where only the Command Level staff and the Board of Directors can even consider looking at them, let alone sharing in them.”
The Screen showed images of some of the Board of Directors going through the memorabilia, putting some of the priceless items in their own pockets, poring over the rest. But nobody who wasn’t Gold Level.
At a time when the Director himself is insisting that we all return to the desolation of the surface, whether we want to go or not, he and his people are refusing to even let the rest of you see what might even be possible from that world. And why? Because it’s rare, and that makes it valuable. And anything valuable is kept away from anyone below Gold Sector.”
The screen showed the water-droplet icon again, and went to black.
~~/*\~~
Cora had already keyed her radio. “We’ll need Stingray guards in the Docking Bay. We have cargo, and if you’ve had your eyes open at all, you know what the cargo is. Get there before anyone else does!” She took a breath. “And somebody better know where I’m supposed to take this thing once we dock.”
~~/*\~~
Normally, a first timer got a warm welcome. Nix and Ben had taken their first mission, and made it back safe. There should have been applause, or at least some recognition.
Instead, there was cold anger. They had all seen it. Gold Level Residents got to drive submarines if they wanted to. But they didn’t handle the dockwork. By the time Cora had jumped down from the Hydra Hawk and signed in her manifest, a crowd had gathered. They were watching her with cold, suspicious eyes.
I know you. She thought to them silently. I know you all. You’re my friends. We talk. We work together every day. Am I the enemy that fast?
Stingray guards came in with their weapons, and their rigid precision, and put a wall of bodies between Cora and the people who had always been happy to see her.
She felt Tai squeeze her arm for a split second, and she shook it off, grateful for the quick measure of support. “Let’s get this Cache stowed away fast.” She told her crew. “Little Fish, I would like you both there while we catalogue this stuff. I don’t want there to be anyone thinking that something didn’t make it to where it was going.”
Where is it going?” Ben asked innocently.
Good question.” Tai said tightly, glancing back at the row of guards making a path for them. “Once we’re done, report to your managers. You’ve made it through your first mission, now you need to know how to report what happened.”
~~/*\~~
Ben reported to his manager, who happened to be his father, posted outside The Director’s Office. When Ben arrived, someone else was waiting for him.
The Director was not pleased. “Ben, there were fewer than five people in the world who knew that the Cache in question had been found. The Pirate Hack was broadcast within five minutes of your sub arriving. You hadn’t even docked yet. Who else knew?”
Ben bit his lip. “Sir…”
Speak plainly.” The Director said. “That’s an order.”
Ben nodded. “There were people at Cameron Outpost. They saw the Cache, hooked up to the Sub. I only got to know a few of the people there, but Carter? The local Stingray Commander was… well, he was joke. The Dockrats had him eating out of their hands.”
Really.” The Director said with a frown. “It’s unlikely that our mysterious Pirate is somewhere on the Fringes. He’s too well informed. But we have a schedule, and we can’t let Dockrats tell Stingrays what to do, can we?”
No sir.”
~~/*\~~
120 Days To Landfall
~~/*\~~
Cora arrived at her father’s office, and nodded a hello to Wayde. “I was summoned by the Director.”
Do you call him that at home too?” Wayde asked. “He’ll be a few minutes. He’s finishing up a meeting.”
With who?” Cora started to ask, when the door opened suddenly. “...ohno.”
Stingray Carter of the Cameron Outpost was being hauled out of Director’s office, his uniform stripped to the waist and two tough Stingray’s gripping him by the shoulders. Commander Morgan was keeping pace with him, his shark-hide baton already bloodied. None of them even looked at her as they dragged Carter away.
But Carter looked. He looked at Cora, and beneath the fear was betrayal. He thought she had turned on him. He knew he was doomed, and assumed it was because of her. She wasn’t so sure he was wrong.
If he asks, tell my father I’m late because I had to use the head.” Cora told Wayde, and hurried off.
~~/*\~~
Don jumped as Cora burst into his laboratory. The look in her eyes was wild, and he read the room quickly. He reached into his pocket and hit the button. "Speak quickly. I can only keep us quiet for so long. And you'll need to think up a reason if anyone asks why you came running in."
"You've gotta get our people out of Cameron Outpost." Cora breathed. "Carter just got dragged in by Morgan. It's a matter of hours before Stingray cleans out the rest of our people."
"Too late." Don admitted regretfully. "Lapthorne called in. Even as he was contacting us, he was dragged away in Cuffs. I'm still not sure that they haven't tracked that signal he was sending."
Cora winced. "If... No, never mind."
He knew what she was asking. "It's not your fault." He promised her. “New Commander at Cameron will likely be Adamson. He’s one of ours, been waiting for a chance to be useful to the cause. Of course, he’ll have to wait for his chance until things cool off over there. I don’t know who Carter’s replacement will be, but…”
After what happened to Carter, he won’t be as easy to handle.” Cora said quietly.
It’s not your fault.” Don said again. "It's a war of ideologies, and we've got four months left until we reach the point of no return. It's going to get worse before it gets better. That's not your fault. If the Pirate Hack didn’t set him off, something else would."
"Are you the one behind the broadcasts?" She asked him softly.
He shook his head. "No. One of the downsides of working as a Cell Group. I'm not a hundred percent sure that the broadcast is anyone connected to us at all."
Cora glanced back at the door. "We've been talking too long." She told him and turned to go. “It had to be Ben. He and Nix were the only ones at Cameron Outpost that weren’t already on our side, and I can’t believe Nix would rat.”
Her TABB chimed, and she froze when she looked at it. “It’s from Cameron Outpost!”
~~/*\~~
"I received a call from Cameron Outpost."
Director Bridger looked up from his desk and found Cora coming in. "You’re late." He told her. “Sit.”
Cora blew right past that and stayed on topic. "The new Commander there wanted to assure me that the Outpost stands ready to provide whatever the Ark-Hive should need during the Transition period to Landfall." Cora reported.
"Good." The Director said shortly.
"Why did he call me?" Cora asked tightly. “I saw Carter getting dragged out of here not ten minutes ago. If there’s been a change of management at Cameron, why is the new guy calling me and not you?”
"I told Wayde to route any calls regarding transition to you." The Director sighed. "You wanted to know if I was grooming you to take over, or to take a post on the Board. That may be, but first you have an entirely different job."
"The transition." Cora guessed.
"No. The Transition Team is run by me. But you've spent as much time out there, bouncing around the Dark Water, as anyone else alive. As my daughter you have the implied authority, which is something nobody else has had until they were twice your age. You have relationships with the Outposts; which is going to be vital for the next few months..."
Cora just looked at him.
"Resource Management." Her father declared.
Cora felt her stomach jump up next to her heart. Resources were the currency of the Ark-Hive. It was a closed community, and the last refuge of the human race. Every time someone breathed, someone else had to grow algae to replace the air. Any time someone ate, someone else had to collect more food. Any time someone needed a sub, nobody else would be able to use it.
And now that The Director had declared they were all moving, never to return; the constant negotiating, bartering and trading of resources had kicked up into a whole other gear.
"There is no way, no way at all; that you'll be able to get the rest of the Committee to agree to putting your own daughter in charge of Resource Management." Cora declared. "I'm not so sure that they'd be wrong to criticize."
"Cora, we only have to keep ahead of things for four months."
"No, we don't." Cora insisted. "In four months, we're on the surface. No Domes, no supplies, no buildings, no quarters, no furniture, no nothing. If they already hate you... hate US, before they even get that far..."
She broke off when she saw him looking at her. There was something new in his eyes. Something he hadn't shown since her mother died. Cora hadn't realized how much she missed it, or even that she'd missed it at all.
He was proud of her.
"What?" She asked him, unnerved; right before she got it. “Ohh, that was a test, wasn’t it?”
"You passed. So, we're dealing with a Public Relations problem." Her father drawled. "Second rule I ever taught you?"
"Never bring up a problem without a solution." Cora recited. "I hate that rule. It means the only problems you know about are the ones that are already fixed."
"Do you have a solution or not?" He smirked.
And he's still smiling. Cora knew him well enough to know he had three or four faces he showed when he wanted to appear agreeable. The smile on his face wasn't like any of them. He was actually proud of her.
"Well... Yeah, I have an idea." She heard her voice say out loud. This is freaking me out! "But it's kind of a difficult ask. For sure, nobody else on the Board will think of it."
"Well, before you make it my decision, you should hear what I have to say first." Her father warned. “Because I have another assignment for you.”
~~/*\~~
"It was the strangest thing." She murmured.
"He's still your father." Tai offered. "I only know him as 'The Director' but surely there's some love there. I mean, he might be our enemy, but he's family to you."
"I know that. I mean, intellectually, I know that. But he's never shown it. Not once, since mom died. I... I'm ashamed to admit this, but for a long time, I wished Don was my father, and not him."
"Cora, if your father and you have finally found some common ground..." Tai hesitated to go further, and Cora suddenly realized why he looked worried.
She leaned in closer and gave him a soft, lingering kiss. "Tai, I didn't become an Aquan out of a fit of teenage rebellion. If my father suddenly became a cuddly stuffed toy, I'd still want to stay in the ocean. It's home. It's... Nix was walking six inches off the deck after making friends with the whale. That's me, every time I go outside. It's what we talked about in the Chamber; about how the Ocean connects to itself like a second skin, so when you're out there, you're connected to everything. I can't let that go."
Tai held her a little closer, and she nuzzled into it gratefully. After the meeting with her father was over, she had to talk to Don, and he was out on assignment. There was no shortage of work for Submarine drivers, so it wasn’t hard to slip away for an hour with her copilot.
"Besides." She sighed. "He was proud of me for reading the population. It wasn't anything I did, or the fact that I was his daughter. He was proud of me for being a politician. His only point of pride was that I was thinking the way he does." She sighed. "Sorry."
"For what?" He asked her.
"We don't get a lot of these private moments. Routine runs in the Dark Water only gives us so long without anyone listening; and now we get one trip in three without little ears in the backseat listening to us." She sighed. "I'm sorry that I keep turning these trips into my own private therapy sessions."
Tai chuckled. "You are... the most capable person I've ever known. I don't know what I have to offer that you can't handle yourself. But you know what? We've got a great big world outside. And it's ours. When we get out there, you'll be needed. I'm always going to be ‘the guy standing beside Cora Bridger’; but next to you is the only place I want to be. It’s not a hardship."
"Don't sell yourself short." She told him. "You're as central to the team as I am. All the Cell Groups out there and The Chief in here. You know as much about the network as I do. If something happened to me, you could take it over without missing a beat."
He shushed her. "Don't say that."
Cora let it go because she didn't want to fight about it, but inwardly she believed she was right. “Anyway, he said ‘no’ to my idea.”
Handing out the latest Cache to the general population?”
Well, that was always a pipe dream. Not enough to go around.” Cora admitted. “But the whole idea of the surface treasures is that they get given to people who show some kind of excellence. They’re priceless rewards. He could at least try and let some of these priceless items get to people who are deserving at Green Sector and below.” Cora yawned and settled in tighter. “Someone like you.”
He snorted. “He give a reason, at least?”
His opinion is that the Pirate Hack forced his hand.” Cora explained. “He can’t follow an idea that comes from an opponent. He just can’t show that much compromise.” She was silent a moment. "Tai? If we manage to pull this off... If we actually get to leave my father and all the rest of them behind? What happens then?"
"Freedom."
"Big word. Vague word." Cora argued. "I mean... We both know how to live off the oceans. We know how to rig a container up as a home, and pressurize a cave. Those are basic survival skills for Dark Water Drivers. Anyone on Team Aqua knows how to find food, and filter drinking water... We do this right, and we won't just be living in narrow outposts. We'll have the whole ocean to lose ourselves in."
"Sounds perfect."
"To me too." Cora admitted. "But I don't think I can do that any more. One way or another, I'm in the middle of this now."
"You were always in the middle of this." He told her. "Being your father's daughter put you in the middle of this. And I liked that you were one of us. Everyone in the Ark-Hive spends their lives under a thousand eyes, and I felt better for it, knowing that you were watching too. Don may be the head of the Aquas, but you were always the heart."
"You're biased." She kissed his nose impulsively.
"Yes, I am." He chuckled and kissed her ear. "But it's true. When one of us has a problem, we go to whoever we know in the network. When we can't help ourselves... most of us look to you." He sighed. "And given what you've just told me, you're on the inside with your father in a major way."
"That has me scared, to be honest." Cora admitted. "My father moved me onto the Board, or at least a lot closer than I was. He's promoting me. A lot. More than he should."
"Cora, things are happening a lot faster than they ever have." He soothed her. "It's jarring, but... Could it be, your father has confidence in you and love for you, and at last he's got a way to show it?"
"He could just say something."
"There was a time I was too terrified to say something." He reminded her. "It's not always that simple. For someone like your dad, giving promotions is easier than being honest."
He was certain, he was gentle, he was sincere, and she relaxed into it. The creeping sense of nerves that her father's sudden personality change had brought about began to fade, just being alone in the ocean with the man she loved. "I don't want to be vital." She confessed quietly. "I want to go out into the water and leave the Domes behind and not have to worry about all the people we know being in danger."
"For a little while yet, you've got a job to do." He told her. "And my job is to be the one you count on while you do your job. But eventually, this crusade will be over."
"And then what?"
He let out a breath. "I'd like to head west. Out past the Dark Water. I... I've heard about the waters in the Pacific. There have only been two probes that transmitted from that far out. They say the water is clear and warm. They say the whales and the dolphins are attracted to the warmth, so there's plenty of life."
"Nobody's ever been out that far." Cora mused.
"We'd be in Ocean nobody has ever seen. Warm and clean and untouched. I'd like to go there one day, with you."
"I would like that." She said softly. She knew it wouldn't happen. It was a dream. One that she felt incredibly drawn to. "I would like that very much."
Silence.
"We'd have to come back, of course." She said finally. "I mean, we can hold out pretty good. And if we took supplies with us, we could set up a pretty nice little private kingdom for ourselves. But without the rest of a community, there's only so long we could last it alone." She chuckled. "Believe me, babe: If it was possible to last out there solo, more than half the Aquas would have stolen a sub and gone for it long ago."
Tai was about to answer, when Cora’s HUD lit up with a sudden warning. Protected Waters! No Submersible Craft!
Tai saw it, and they both straightened up, heading back to their posts at the controls. "How long will you need?"
"Not too long, once I find him." Cora turned the sub quickly to kill speed. As the sub halted, she rose from her seat, kissed him swiftly, and collected her facemask.
~~/*\~~
Protected waters were not uncommon around their outposts; especially in the science stations. She would have to go closer on foot. The Plains were close enough to Ark-Hive depth that she wouldn't have to pressurize.
Pressurize. She thought distantly to herself as she snapped the seal shut on her neck-ring. I wonder how we'll do that. Landfall means going above the Blue Line. Nobody's done that in centuries.
She set her TABB to make the Hydra hover, and let herself out the floor hatch.
She didn't see much more than rock and silt as she walked. She could have used her suit turbines to stay off ground level, but if the place was restricted, she had no idea what the sound of her suit jets would stir up, so she walked, watching where she planted her feet.
The glow took her by surprise. She looked up and saw a line of purple-white light, zipping back and forth in front of her face. She'd never seen it before. At least, not at this depth. There were fish that glowed with natural, biological light. But none of them ever swam at this depth.
The fish clipped up quickly toward Cora, drifting a few feet in front of her. When it stopped, Cora was able to focus on it. It was a regular clownfish, the kind that lived in the Reefs. But its white stripes were glowing brightly.
Surprised, Cora switched off her suit light to get a proper look at it, and keyed her TABB to turn off the Hydra lights as well. Aside from the fish, there was no light visible, as the rest of the Ocean by Night went dark...
...And then everything lit up brightly.
Cora laughed automatically, delighted. Huge schools of fish had suddenly lit up, replacing the lack of light with their own brightness. It was soft and natural light, but there were thousands of fish, creating explosive waves of light that moved wildly back and forth as whole schools, whole multitudes of fish gleamed brightly. The ocean itself was a canvass of beautiful light.
"You like it?" A voice called over her TABB.
"Don?" She called back. "Where are you?"
The huge clouds of fish seemed to... shiver, as though every fish in the group was suddenly aware of a predator, and they schooled apart. The effect was like two curtains of living light being pulled back to reveal the stage beneath. The huge volume of fish began circling in two points, and between them, Don became visible. He was wearing his own EVA suit, tapping at one of the outdoor mobile workstations, usually used for running digging equipment. She strode over to join him, eyes glued to the light show overhead. "How are you doing that?"
"Breeding bio-luminescence into species that don't usually have it is a relatively easy gene-hack. We've been doing that since the 21st century." Don told her. "But getting them to respond to stimuli... that's fairly new." Don gestured, and Cora strained to see through the clouds of fish, getting a look at tower points within. "I managed to get them to respond to the electrical patterns. Some animals track by scent, some by sight, and some can detect biological energy fields. They can sense electrical fields. With a little luck, I was able to breed that into some common fish."
"So they sense the energy coming off those tower lights, and they... what? Chase it? Attack it?"
"Something like that." Don nodded. "You dial the power up and down a tiny bit, you can make them follow, or stay in one place. Beyond that, all they need is food. It takes less than a tenth of the power of running the actual electrical lights, because of course…"
"All the light they generate is natural." Cora nodded. "A mobile floodlight that keeps breeding and going where you call. No maintenance, no parts required."
Don nodded. He then signalled her silently with one hand. A hand signal she recognized. "So." She said brightly. "The Director wanted me to talk to you about laboratory schedules."
He nodded, working his TABB. "Naturally. Now that we're going back to the surface, I imagine we'll need to adapt a lot of our biologies to live in dirt instead of tanks."
Cora nodded. "Can I give you a hand with this equipment?"
"Always glad to have an extra set of hands." He said graciously, tapping away at his TABB. An instant later, he held out a hand.
Waiting for the cue, Cora handed him the other end of the tether. He attached it and spoke to her in a lower tone. "Signal-Jack is active. They'll be hearing chit-chat for a few minutes."
"The Director finally gave me my new assignment." Cora made her report. "I had to come tell you."
"Can I ask, do you always refer to your father as 'The Director'?" Don asked her with some amusement. "Because it's a little..."
"I know. You aren't the first one to say so." Cora admitted. "But we’re the only family in the Ark-Hive to have a surname, and I think... When we discuss this sort of thing, it helps not to think of me as his daughter; given how he's likely to react when he finds out."
By the time that happens, we'll be on the far side of the Outposts, and we won't be back."
"Neither will anyone else, if the Earthers manage to pull off Landfall." Cora commented lightly. "But I may be able to help you there."
"Oh?"
"My new post: Resource Management."
Don laughed delightedly. "Oh, my dear girl. You hit the jackpot."
Cora smiled. "You would have been proud of me, Don. I got the assignment and I acted like I was being punished. It was all I could do to not turn cartwheels."
Don let out a breath, a cloud of bubbles floating up from his mask. "So. With your new job, I imagine you have a pretty good idea of the resources of the Ark-Hive?"
"Figuring out what's available isn't the problem." Cora told him. "The problem is that for every person and project that needs something, we've got enough resources to satisfy about two thirds of them. And that's not even counting our 'extra-curriculars'. In fact, The Director told me to shut most of your Bio-Tech projects down in favor of what we'll need for Landfall."
"Can you keep ahead of it?" Don asked her.
"I can. But I need to know how much of what we're doing here is absolutely necessary, and how much of it can wait until after everyone's gone."
"That rather depends on how much the Earthers are leaving behind when they head for the surface." Don commented.
"And that's my job." Cora nodded. "To figure out how much we can take with us." She hesitated. "Without getting caught, at least."
Don let out another breath. "Well then. It seems you've been put in the most pivotal chair in the world."
Cora nodded weakly. "I know."
He noted her tone. "You are... upset?"
"Nervous, more than anything." Cora admitted. "What we're doing here will decide the fate of the entire human race, to say nothing of all our lives. The finish line just suddenly got so... real; and I'm a little... scared out of my mind."
"Well, if it helps, I believe you can do it; and I'll feel better knowing you're in the mix." Don checked his TABB. "The signal block has been running too long. We'll have to wrap this up quickly." He looked back at her. "With your new post, you'll be on the move. We'll have to accelerate the removal of your apprentice." He glanced over. “By the way, you were right. Nix was assigned to me. She’s glad to be around living things, but I think she really wanted to be out there with you.”
Feeling’s mutual. Ben’s trying not to freak at the idea of spending so much time on the Deep Ranges.” Cora nodded. "That's the other reason why I came to see you. We'll need to arrange an argument."
Don nodded. "I'll arrange a suitable point of friction with your father by the end of the day."
"That'll be tricky." She said with grim irony, and disconnected the tether between them.
"I appreciate your help with this, Cora." Don continued, as though they hadn't been speaking the whole time.
"It's all hands on deck, after last week's announcement." Cora said lightly.
"Don't I know it. Your father has me culturing every kind of biologic we have in Ark-Hive Storage."
"Ones we haven't been using?"
"Ones we need for life on the surface. The probes can carry up bacterial and fungal cultures while they check surface conditions; they can even scatter seeds in the air, but you can’t do that with animals."
"Exciting. I've never seen a land animal before." Cora said brightly. "Well, I'd better get moving. The one thing nobody has to spare is time. See you at the next Cabinet meeting."
~~/*\~~
Down at The DJ Locker, Lisa and Tony were on a break. Lisa would never admit she'd noticed, but Tony was taking more of his breaks to coincide with hers, and she rather liked it.
The Pirate Hack had been seen in the Locker, too. The customers were all talking about it, but only in whispers. Lisa had long figured out that the Monitors were offline in the Locker, but she didn't know how many of the regular customers had figured it out.
Tony knew. That was why when they went on break, they only ever went as far as a private booth. They never did more than talk or eat; but it was nice, not having to weigh their words.
"I wonder why the Monitors don't work, but the Pirate Hacks do." Tony wondered out loud once they were alone. "I mean, if the screens can't see out like the other public ones can, why do we get any feeds?"
"Just between us, I think that the Stingrays are the ones that shut off the Monitors in here." She smiled winningly. "I guess even the Law needs a place to bitch about their bosses."
Tony found that hilarious.
Lisa smirked. "I'm not worried. As long as the Director's Daughter is a regular, I reckon the boss feels pretty safe."
"I'm surprised she comes down to Green Sector, since all the good stuff is in Gold Sector." Tony groused lightly, almost to himself.
She heard him anyway. "If you believe it. It's a Pirate Hack, so who knows if any of it is legit." She saw his face and deflated. "Yeah, I don't buy that either. It isn't right."
Silence.
"What do you think about Landfall?" He asked finally.
"It's a place I've never been. I'm supposed to get excited about it?" Lisa said with a smirk. "But here's the thing: All the stuff from the surface? All the stuff that might get us excited about going back? I've never seen any of it."
"Must be something wild in those Caches." He commented, mostly as a joke. "All the people who see it would go for Landfall right now if they could make it happen."
"Well. Six months from now, we'll have all of the surface that we can get."
"Gotta admit, part of me is really excited about it." Tony admitted. "I mean, it's something neither of us thought we'd ever see. The Land."
~~/*\~~
"Hey, Cora? Don't go in there."
Cora turned. Wayde was coming up behind her, waving her off from the conference room. "Your father is in there with the Life Sciences Director, and they're having a... 'discussion'."
"A nice, loud one?" Cora guessed.
"Loud enough to strip panels out of the bulkhead." Wayde agreed. "And just to warn you, I've heard them naming names."
"Is my name one of them?"
Wayde was about to answer, when the door slammed back on its hinges and Don stormed out. "WHEN YOU'RE READY TO SEE SENSE, I'LL BE DOWNSTAIRS DOING MY JOB!"
Wayde and Cora plastered themselves against the wall as Don stormed past. He didn't even look at them. The door to the Director's Office was still open.
Wayde and Cora traded a nearly telepathic look. One of us has to go in there. "Arm wrestle you for it?" Wayde asked blithely.
~~/*\~~
Cora poked her head in the conference room. Her father was brooding over by the porthole. His frame radiated so much tension that for a moment, she thought the water outside was starting to boil. "Before I come in, do I need to go get my wetsuit? If you're going to punch out a bulkhead, I want to be ready."
Director Bridger saw his daughter hovering behind the doorframe and gestured for her to come in and join him. "First rule of handling arrogant gasbags?"
Cora shut the door behind her. "In victory, be gracious. In surrender, use a proxy." She recited from memory. "The surrender doesn't get done in person unless the victor is your equal or better."
"Patsy, not proxy." He corrected.
"I remember, but I have the sneaking suspicion that you're planning to have me go and make peace." Cora drawled. "It would help if I knew what the fight was about."
The Director sighed. "It's been centuries since we were on the surface. None of us know what to expect when we get up there. For sure, none of our immune systems will have any idea what to make of surface living. Plant and animal species have obviously adapted to the current conditions, at least enough to scrub the atmo. But..."
"But we'll need crops to grow, animals to work with, and none of us has seen a surface animal. Ever." Cora finished. "So what did you ask Life Sciences to do?"
"I told him to start work on new land species. Land and air. He flat out refused. Said that 'in his expert opinion'..."
Cora snorted. "Oh, your favorite phrase."
"He wants to kick up the breeding cycles for the wild fish to the same level they are in the food tanks." The Director finished. "It's like he's not aware of the timetable at all. We need viable animals by the time we get to the surface."
Cora took a breath and stepped into the ring. "He's probably thinking that we need food supplies in much higher quantities, if we plan to live without our food tanks. The Landfall plan you have is for us to spread out into two colonies, to improve our chances. Don's thinking that even land based civilization can live well off the ocean."
"I know that, and he's not wrong; but that's not the point. The oceans are healthy and productive and rich. The land... who in hades knows? I want my best geneticists working to correct problems we may have waiting for us. I want to do for the surface what we've done for the oceans... and we won't have nearly as much to fall back on when we get there."
"We'll have the oceans." Cora pointed out. "Even if we're making use of them from the surface, we'll have food and water and... well, other stuff too, probably." She looked hard at him. "So. Can I assume you need me to apologize for you, while you stand well out of sight and find a way to punish him for insubordination?"
"Well... yes." Her father confessed. "The thing is, he's braver than usual these days. His department just became considerably more important than it has been in years. I can't have a divided cabinet right now. Now, of all times!"
"Well, if you can't sack him, and you can't take away resources, what do you plan to do?" Cora asked, starting to see the angles.
"I need to send him a message. Nothing that'll affect his work in a serious way, just something to rattle his cage."
"How about his staff?" Cora offered.
The Director shook his head. "His staff will be needed for what's next." Cora watched him silently, and saw the exact moment he had the idea. "But I've heard him say good things about his newest apprentice. And she can't have been there long enough to become pivotal. Assignments are up to me."
"So where will you send her?"
"Oh, there's no shortage of places." Bridger waved that off. "It doesn't matter where she goes, it matters that she's taken away from him. It's symbolic, but the symbol has power enough for what we need."
Cora chewed her lip. "Nix. That's her name, right?"
"Right."
"Then here's an idea. Assign her to me. Tell him I requested her. In fact..." She pulled out her TABB and tapped at it for a few seconds. "In fact, I just sent you the transfer request. If he complains, then it's not coming from you; it's coming from the girl that came by to make your apologies."
The Director raised an eyebrow. "You already have an apprentice."
"And he's a good kid, but he's... Ben will be great on the surface, he'll be great here in Gold Sector, but right now, I need someone who can handle Wet-Working with a short curve. It's not like the kid I've got now will need these skills for the rest of his life."
"And let's not pretend that you don't like Nix quite a bit more than any of the other potentials in the lineup." The Director smirked.
"I've worked with Delphi a long time, and if he likes Nix, then that's good enough for me." Cora said calmly. "It's going to be hard enough leaving Delphi behind."
The Director considered. "And it's a clearer signal if I take his apprentice from him and send her to my daughter. Very cold. How'd you get so good at this?"
Cora gave him her most winning smile. "I had a good teacher."
~~/*\~~
"I hate working like this." Cora nearly snarled.
Tai shushed her gently, one arm around her shoulders as she leaned into him, his other hand on the controls of the Hydra Hawk, adjusting the autopilot. "This was the plan." He reassured her. "We agreed, having Nix along would be the better option."
"I know, but..." Cora shuddered. "He was so proud of me, Tai. We were talking about how to deliver a stinging slap in the face to Don, and it was just so easy to play him. Me and Don... we manipulated my dad into doing what we wanted him to do; and it was so easy."
"Shh." He soothed. "We're not the bad guys in this story, Cora. We're just getting out. That's all."
"I'm not sure there are bad guys in this story." Cora sighed. "He's my father, Tai. Whatever else he did, however much I wish he was... He's still my father."
"Hey. The Aquans haven't been out for revenge since before Don was in charge." He told her, not for the first time. "We're not a violent group. This isn't a war, it's an escape plan. We won't hurt him, Cora. We don't do that."
Cora sniffed. "If I went with you, I might believe that. But if I vanish with everyone else, he'll tear up the ocean floor to find me if he has to. We both know that the odds are we can't do it subtle. Not with a six month schedule. Don can keep people calm, but odds are? We're going to be running for our lives and we'll be stealing a fair amount on our way out. One way or another, this is going to be bloody."
~~/*\~~
"The transfer went through, of course." Don told Tai later that night in private. "I know Cora's not comfortable with the scheming, but she's very good at it."
"I think that's the part she has the most trouble with." Tai commented.
The door suddenly burst open and both men jumped away from each other instinctively. Every meeting, every clandestine conference held with it the certain fear that one day, they'd be caught.
But framed in the door wasn't Commander Morgan, or any of his Stingray guards. Instead... There was a young girl, looking madder than either of them had ever seen her.
"Sir!" Nix snapped. "I just heard about-" She suddenly noticed Tai. "You! You were behind this, weren't you!?" She spun back to Don. "Sir, I swear I didn't know! I didn't complain or lobby for it or anything!"
"It's a good move." Tai offered. "Being that close to the Director's Daughter? It's a great boost for your career."
"I had a career! I was assigned to Don, and the whole Ark-Hive is yapping about their fight! This was The Director flipping off my boss, and using me to do it." She spun on Don. "I swear, I had nothing to do with it! I would never-"
"Of course not." Don soothed. "I know all about it, Nix. And strange as it may seem, I'm fine with it. You see, it was my idea that you get sent to Cora and Tai."
That caught the girl short. "It was?"
"Yes. And Cora was quite clever getting The Director to think it was his plan." Don said grandly, as though telling a favorite granddaughter a funny story. "You see, Nix... things are happening quickly now. And not everyone is happy about it. You told me about your dad being hustled out of his usual room and shoved into a broom closet in Grey Sector. It’s happening all over. It's best if we can do what we can to see these... painful disruptions coming."
Nix stared at him for a moment. "I can appreciate that. I know at least half a dozen people who would have liked a little warning..."
Don nodded in agreement. "Maybe even... a little more than just being able to expect it? A lot of choices are being made for people without their knowledge, let alone their involvement-"
"Oh, Hades!" Nix blurted. "You're Aquans!"
Don and Tai just looked at her, not pushing. "Yes."
Nix turned and bolted.
Tai sent a quick glance at the monitor, and turned to Don. “Do I go after her? She could rat us out right now.”
You didn’t, when it was you.” Don said kindly. “I know this kid. She’ll make the right choice.”
Tai snorted. “And if she doesn’t, we’ll be summoned to the Director’s Office before midnight for our execution, and maybe Cora too.”
~~/*\~~
116 Days To Landfall
~~/*\~~
Ano came into Cora's room and shook her awake. "Wake up." The older woman hissed.
Cora woke up with a groan. "What is it?"
"Your father is calling a meeting, and it includes you." Ano told her. "He says to get you into the Boardroom right now. C'mon, UP! I'll see if I can make you presentable."
Cora felt a spike of fear, even half asleep. "For tonight? It's... 0130."
Ano hauled her blankets away. "I know. The faster I can get you into your Dress Uniform, the faster I can get back to sleep." She already had a comb in one hand, and Cora's dress boots in the other. "Get Up!"
~~/*\~~
Cora's heart rate spiked when she was escorted by Stingray guards to the Conference Room, and then spiked a lot more when she saw the company she was in. It was just her, Tai, Commander Morgan, and Don.
We're dead. Me, Tai and Don, all dead.
"What's the problem?" Cora asked Don quietly.
"I don't know." Don said, equally subtle. "But don't panic, whatever you do. Don't tip your hand."
Cora subtly looked over at Morgan, who gazed back at them like he was dissecting them. Don't panic. She reminded herself. He always looks like that.
The door opened, and in came the Director at a march, with three other members of the Board with him. Cora sat down, but didn't relax. If he's figured out what side I'm on, he'd want witnesses when he orders me taken to the Quay.
"I apologize for the lateness of the hour." Director Bridger said loudly as he swept in. Everyone hurried to their seat as he strode swiftly to the head of the table. "There's been an accident. One of our School Submarines was taking the Third Year Plebes to the Caves off Massey Point for a geology lesson. Something went wrong. They are now ten hours overdue."
Cora winced. "How many?"
"As many as twenty three students, all under the age of twelve. Plus four instructors, and the pilot." The Director informed them. "Our information is sketchy, but it looks like they were going through the Massey Trench, as is usual for lessons on underwater geology... And he went into the wrong cave."
"Why would he leave the markers?" Don asked. "I've spent a lot of time in the Massey Caves with my apprentices. There are well laid out beacons in there."
"True, but it looks like the pilot was showing off. His son is one of the students." The Director told them, glancing at his daughter. “Cora, it was Wayde. He apparently volunteered to pilot the sub.”
Cora felt her heart thud again. Wayde’s son is Ben. Nix is probably in that class too.
"We received a distress call twenty minutes ago. The message spoke of a cave collapse, and that was the last we heard." The Director turned to his left. "Doctor, you've been in there more than any of us. Tell us about the geography."
Don chewed his lip a moment. "There's... There are hundreds of caves in there. Most of them are pretty stable, but there's a lot of twists and turns. It's laid out a lot like coral. Dozens of large chambers, with small passages back and forth between them. Some of the larger passages are large enough to get a sub through. If one of them collapsed..."
Commander Morgan spoke. "Then the sub could still be intact, just trapped. How much air do they have?"
"Enough for another fourteen hours."
"It'll take five hours just to get out there." Don hissed. With all those twists and turns? Could take days to find the sub."
"I've been in those caves too." Cora put in. "The School Subs are a type four, right?"
"Right."
"Those engines kick up a lot of silt. It would be easy enough to track if we can get enough lights on."
"We can't get any of our halogens in there. Not at that pressure. All the lights that are small enough to fit through a cave-in, and strong enough to take the pressure? They won't illuminate more than ten feet." Her father said grimly. "Cora. Tai. You two have more Dark Water experience than anyone else in the Ark-Hive. If there's something we're missing, tell us now, because I've got nearly thirty people trying to take very shallow breaths."
Long silence.
"There might be a way." Cora said finally. "I've been experimenting with 3D Mapping. The Massey Caves are left alone between classes, but they're fairly well mapped. If there's a cave-in somewhere, we might be able to compare to the charts and track them that way."
"No chance you'd be able to get sonar equipment in there. At least, not in time."
"Actually..." Don put in. "There might be."