Friday, 6 April 2018

13 Chapter Thirteen: The Macallan Trench


39 Days To Landfall
~~/*\~~
Nix was an Apprentice. With the Deadline getting closer, and the disruption finally starting to fade, every Apprentice was doing the work of several people, just like any of the commissioned officers. Even so, nobody at her level was summoned to The Director’s office.
He knows. Nix stressed. She shook her head quickly. If The Director suspected her of being subversive, she’d be Bagged, and she’d never see it coming. There wouldn’t be an invitation to The Director’s office.
Ben was happy to see her again. She fought to keep the nerves off her face while she made small talk with him. He wanted to know what everyone wanted to know. “So, which way are you voting?”
Nix wanted to tell him the truth. He was a little more interested in her than she was comfortable with, but that was no reason to lie to him. Except that she had to. Don had put the word out to play dumb as long as possible. “Ohh, I go where my teachers go. Cora will no doubt be returning to the surface; and you never know, she may want me there, too.”
Can’t imagine why she wouldn’t.” Ben said, with just a little too much candor. Nix was looking for a way to brush that off, when Ben checked a sudden change on his terminal. “He’ll see you now.”
Steeling herself, Nix went into the Director’s Office.
He was behind his desk, facing away from her, out the plexi-glass. He gazed at the ocean for a while as Nix sat down. “Reporting as ordered, sir.” She offered. She couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Silence.
How…” The Director sighed. “How are things out there, Apprentice?”
Quiet, sir.” Nix said truthfully.
Yes, it looked like there was going to be a lot more violence than there actually was. Cora’s idea about the Referendum cooled much of it.” The Director admitted. “And… Cora? How’s she been keeping?”
Nix tensed and relaxed simultaneously. She suddenly knew what she had been summoned for, but there was still a dozen ways this conversation could go badly. “I’m sure you’re better informed than I am, sir. With Tai… dismissed, Cora’s main focus for the last two weeks has been on her work here with the Board. Until she gets a new partner, I’m not really working with her that closely…”
Apprentice…” The Director sighed. “Speak plainly, please. I have reports coming from Cora on a regular basis. In fact, a lot more regular than she’d ever turned in her reports. When she does work in a department other than mine, she’s apparently punctual, task-driven, conscientious, and…” He looked at her. “None of these reports will tell me how she is. She’s out of our Quarters before I wake up, and she’s in bed early by the time I get back. I want to know how my daughter is.”
Nix wasn’t sure if he was asking as Director, or a worried father, but was leaning toward the latter. “She’s… sleepwalking.” Nix said finally. “I take meals with her as much as I can, and she’s just gone quiet. Not like she’s broken. More like she’s… thinking. I don’t know what about, but it’s like all the things she cared about before are suddenly meaningless.”
The Director glowered out the window again.
I think she blames herself for Tai. She knows it wasn’t a Black Bag, because-” Nix dared.
Because you told her.” The Director didn’t turn. “You may go, Apprentice.”
Nix did so, glad for it. A few moments later, The Director sat at his desk and tapped at his terminal. “Morgan, please respond.”
Here, sir.” The Stingray Commander was prompt.
I’ve never once asked you a question I didn’t want the answer to.” The Director said carefully. “I’ve never once asked you about your prisoners. You tell me the threat is neutralized, and I accept that.”
Yessir.” Morgan responded. “I take it this is about to change?”
It is.” The Director nodded.
~~/*\~~
Cora hadn’t left her room in almost fourteen hours. She sat with her back to the Plexiglas wall. She didn’t want to look outside. She had been letting her work in Resource Management slide in favor of her work with the Aquans, and needed to catch up on it. She had questions of her own to answer.
Ano would have brought her food, pulled her from the chair, made her go outside, or at least interact with people. But Ano was gone. Tai would have found an excuse to swim up to her Plexiglas, knock quietly, blow her a kiss. But Tai was gone. It had to stop. And she had to stop it.
She had a plan now, and it was a fragile thing in her head. She knew better than to write any of it down. She didn’t need to. She could see everything she needed. The time of trusting her father’s intentions and Don’s Network was over, and Cora was amazed to discover that she could put a lot of it together with careful thought. Her position as Don’s Agent, and The Director’s Daughter gave her more of the puzzle on both sides than any other member of the Ark-Hive. She could map out the Aquans, the Earthers, The Stingray… She could see it all laid out like a tapestry now.
It was only a matter of time before someone caught onto what she was planning. She had everything she needed except time. Because sooner or later-
Cora!” Her father called through her bedroom door. “Can we speak, please?”
Cora felt a thrill go through her, and checked the clock. Her father was never home this time of day. If it was business, he only had to call her, or at least summon her to his office. But he had come home in the middle of the day to speak to her, so it was personal.
When she came out of her room, and found Morgan and Don standing with her father, her heart sped up dramatically. She kept it off her face. Breathe, Cora. Tai could hold his breath for over a hundred meters. You can stay calm in your own home.
Lieutenant Bridger.” Morgan nodded. “For the record, I was against this.”
Her father let out a breath and looked at her. “Cora… I’m afraid I have some bad news.”
Tai is dead.” Cora said flatly. She didn’t have a trace of emotion on her face. “Let me guess: Killed while trying to escape.” She looked at Morgan. “Yes?”
Yes.” Morgan confirmed, though it was clear he took little pleasure in it.
Cora was still a total blank as she nodded. “At least with Tai it’s halfway plausible. More so than with Ano, anyway.”
The Director tried to regain control of the conversation. “Cora, I’m so sorry for-”
Cora ignored her father completely. “Where is Tai now? The body?”
He was dispatched to the Macallan Trench like the others.” Don told her.
Cora shifted her gaze from Morgan to her father. “I’d like to take the Hydra Hawk out there and pay my respects. Shouldn’t take more than a few hours. Once my duties allow it, of course.” She said politely. “And later on, I had a few thoughts about the schedule. It’ll save you a few days on Dismantling the Museum.”
Her father nodded after a long moment. It was chilling. Here was his daughter, and for the first time in her life, he had no idea what she was thinking. Cora had changed in the weeks since Ano and Tai had been taken. She was a stranger to him now.
Cora thanked them both and left, leaving a stunned Director, and a nonplussed Commander.
Shock.” Don said sagely. “She’s handling it by throwing herself into work.”
No, that’s not like her.” The Director shook his head. “I know Cora. She doesn’t bury herself when something bad happens. This is something else.”
Sir, this has been circling her for weeks.” Morgan said carefully. “We’ve systematically taken people she knows off the board. And a suspicious person would wonder why we haven’t looked at her directly.” He shrugged, like it was no big deal. “You pay me to be a suspicious man.”
Morgan, we’ve talked about this.” Bridger warned.
She’s smart, but she’s too trusting.” Don added. “Someone wants to take advantage, she’ll let them. Besides, I was the one who tipped you off about Tai. It wasn’t anyone connected to her family.”
Did that strike you as a naive little girl who just left the room?” Morgan countered.
That reaction?” Don put in. “It was you.”
Me?”
He’s right, Morgan.” The Director added. “Remember the last time you and I stood in this room and ‘broke the bad news’ to Cora? It was the night her mother died. You haven’t been in our quarters personally since that night, and now, here you are again to give more bad news. That was a flashback.”
Morgan let out a breath. “Well, it’s not like I was offended.”
She was offended, Morgan. And so was I.” The Director said evenly. “Don’t use Ano as justification. We both know you guessed wrong on that one. That’s why you moved on to Tai. Ano was part of my household before Cora was even born. You sure you want to keep going with my daughter too?”
Understood, sir.” Morgan nodded. “On the assumption that Cora was duped… Are you sure it’s wise to let her go across the ocean alone? We don’t let people do that on business. There’s always a partner.”
She’s trying to bury the last one. Does it seem like the right time?” Bridger said acidly. “That girl is the future of the Ark-Hive, Morgan. If you can’t keep her safe and show some respect simeltaneously, then let me know, so I can find someone who can.”
Director, if I may…” Don put in. “Commander Morgan is quite correct. The Trench is not the place to take chances on safety. And Cora and Tai have a history with that spot. As you say, that young woman is the future of the Ark-Hive. I suggest we… keep her safe.”
~~/*\~~
32 Days To Landfall
~~/*\~~
It was almost a week before she could get out of the Ark-Hive again. The Hydra Hawk ran quieter than any of the submarines on rotation. Cora was glad for it. She knew her father had seen the change in her, but she didn’t care. As long as he didn’t know what the change was, she’d be fine. She just had to keep ahead of them for another few weeks, and her plan would either be a total success, or she’d be dead. At this point, she almost didn’t care which.
It wasn’t that she didn’t care about Tai’s death. It was that she had been expecting it since he was taken. In a way, she’d been preparing herself for the moment since the first time she’d told him she loved him.
But her cold demeanor hadn’t come from that. It was Morgan, back in her house, the wretched Shark. Come to offer sympathy and give her the bad news. Her mental revelation about how selfish she had been was slapped in her face again, because the only promise she had made when she learned the truth about her mother’s death, was a pledge to avenge her. And instead of doing anything about it, she had kept quiet, and now it had happened twice more.
Cora’s head was pounding with the realization. She was finally getting closer to fulfilling promises made long ago. And that was why she had asked to come ‘pay her respects’ at the Trench. She needed one last conversation with him.
~~/*\~~
The Macallan Trench. Cora thought as she pulled her submarine to a halt. So many memories. She glanced at her Scope. She could see the Decompression Chamber where she and Tai had recovered. She had deliberately sabotaged her mother’s sub, because Don had told her to keep a secret about this Trench, and she had never asked what it was.
Tai had nearly died, because his own secrets about her had distracted him at a critical moment. And she had let him. If she’d pressed him more, he would have confessed his feelings for her a week earlier. They would have had so much more time to just…
If you’d told me then, I might have pointed this sub the other way.” She said quietly. It was something they had joked about often. Just take a submarine and drive out across the Trench, never to return. They wouldn’t have gotten far, but they both would have been happier for it.
You were right, Tai.” Cora sighed to herself.
...ow at silent runnin…”
Cora jumped. The voice had come from her own console. The speaker was set to passive listening. The ocean conducted sound better than anything else. Just listening to the water could give you an idea of what was in the area. Cora had just picked up a stray snippet of communication. Not a signal, not a transmission. Someone out there was speaking.
Except it’s the Macallan Trench. It’s a graveyard. Who could possibly be speaking out here?
Intrigued, Cora worked the controls and moved the Hawk slowly towards the trench. She also hooked up the passive sonar to her headphones. A job that her co-pilot should have, leaving her free to drive.
She descended into the Trench almost forty meters, and shut down the engines. A slow, silent drift, while the listened carefully to the ocean around her.
...s the Hydr…” She heard a voice whisper from the dark.
...who else could it…”
...going to go out th...”
Cora’s eyes flew open in disbelief. “Ano?” She hissed. She wasn’t imagining it. She checked the sensor logs. The soundwave pattern was right there. It was a real sound, picked up on passive Sonar. Cora had grown up hearing that voice. Even through the ocean, over the headphones, she recognized it absolutely.
Ano was out there somewhere, talking. In the Macallan Trench.
The Trench. Where Don needed me to keep a secret. Where Don has something hidden. I thought it was a supply cache. I thought it was a hiding place… and it is. But not for supplies!
Don’t drown us.” A voice said behind her.
Cora let out a shriek that would have been audible back in the Ark-Hive. She flew out of her chair so fast that the headphones nearly snapped in half.
Sorry!Sorry!Sorry!” He said, holding up both hands. “Didn’t mean to startle!”
It was Randall.
How did you get on board!?” Cora snapped, an inch away from attacking him.
I was always on board.” Randall explained. “Your father was worried about you, being out here alone. Regulations say you have to have a partner in the Dark Water.” He gestured out the window. “And by the way, I can see what he was worried about. Why are you driving your submarine into the Macallan Trench?!”
Cora suddenly caught herself and went back to the controls. She quietly turned the feed from the Passive Sonar down to nothing, and stowed her headphones. “I was… this is where Tai and I became more than friends. It started here.” She sent him a glare. “If this is where he’s buried… I was hoping to have a little privacy for this.”
Got less than you expected, huh?” Randall said coolly.
Meaning?” Cora played innocent.
I heard someone on the Passive-”
Oh, I get that all the time.” Cora waved it off. “On a clear day, you can pick up snips of conversations from the East Range.”
No, I don’t believe that’s true.” Randall came over and sat in the Co-Pilots Chair. Tai’s chair. She noted distantly. He put his feet up on the console. “This is a pretty sweet view you’ve got here. When I travel, I always end up in the cargo hold, hanging onto the wall.”
Cora chuckled. “Yeah, it’s a better view from the pilot’s seat.” She worked the controls and prayed he couldn’t hear her heart pounding. “You’re right, I should head back to the Light Water. I just wanted to… say goodbye.”
And someone said it back?” Randall chuckled, though she noticed he was resting one hand on his weapon. “Let me bring up the passive sonar. I might be able to hear whoever it-”
Wait!” Cora blurted, unplanned, unprepared…
...and too late. Randall had already turned up the feed; listening to the ocean again, piping it over the speakers. The sound was immediately clear. “Cora? Are you there? I know it’s you.”
Cora froze. “Tai!?”
Randall moved fast, grabbing for the controls with one hand, and his shock-gun with the other. “Lieutenant Bridger, you are under arrest!”
Cora lunged. Both her hands clapped around the weapon. It wouldn’t pierce the hull, but it would put her down and out. If Tai was alive, he wouldn’t be for long if Randall could report back. Tai is alive! Sweet Poseidon, how is this possible?
Randall swung on her. He was past the point of discretion now. If he reported this, even the Director couldn’t save her, and they both knew it. Cora had seen the swing coming, and ducked back just enough that the punch clipped her chin. Cora hissed as the pain clouded everything for a moment.
Randall had already caught her wrists and was trying to cuff her, weapon aimed. Cora knew she couldn’t take him hand to hand. She’d already taken the first punch, and sheer luck meant she wasn’t concussed right now. So she kicked out, not for him, but for the co-pilot’s controls. She hit the stick and the Hawk lurched like someone had given it an uppercut.
Randall was thrown off balance, just long enough for her to get into her seat properly and send the Hawk into a steep climb, nose up. The Submarine wasn’t designed to move like a dolphin, but Cora had been driving her for years, and made it happen anyway.
Cora was strapped into her seat, and Randall was not. As the room went vertical, Randall went spinning, tumbling against the walls and doorways. It gave her just enough time to scan the walls of the Trench. Somewhere in here, someone was hiding, and she didn’t have time to look. She had to get Randall away from here.
Pushing the engines to maximum, she had only a few seconds to set the autopilot, before Randall recovered and-
His weapon barked and Cora felt her hair straighten out as electrical sparks ran across her console.The craft lurched, and Cora gasped as her fingers burned. The Stingray weapon was designed for exactly this sort of fight, and the discharge sent her gasping. She reached beside her chair and came up with the small fire extinguisher, required to be in reach at all times on every submarine. She raised it, ready to swing, and found Randall just out of reach, aiming his Stinger.
First one was a warning shot!” Randall shouted behind her. “Don’t think I won’t do it.”
Cora forced herself to touch the metal console again and slammed the extinguisher down on the console. It shattered instantly. “No radio!” She told him firmly. “Which means no radio guidance. No auto. Can you even drive this thing?”
He pulled the trigger and hit her full force. Cora gasped as the pain lanced through her. Her limbs didn’t want to work suddenly, twitching uncontrollably, every muscle seizing, eyes rolling in different directions. She was able to gasp in a tiny bit of air before her chest and throat seized too, and she was suddenly unable to breathe.
Paralyzed, nothing could stop Randall from coming up and hauling her from the pilot’s seat. He dropped her unceremoniously onto the floor, and sat down in her place. He didn’t even bother to cuff her. She couldn’t lift her head, or focus her eyes, but she could still hear him at the radio. “Stingray Checkpoint, this is Randall, are you receiving me?”
Don’t panic. Cora told herself, even as her lungs thrashed for air that wouldn’t come. You’ve trained how to handle near drownings. You can get air. There is enough. Those Stingers aren’t lethal, that’s the whole point.
The radio console sparked again as Randall tried to repair it. “Repeat, Stingray Checkpoint 21-Baker, are you receiving me?”
Cora was finally starting to see straight. She reached one hand out, moving slower than she’d ever moved. She was able to grip the base of the co-pilots chair, pull herself six inches over towards the hatch…
Oop, no thank you!” Randall caught her arm and hauled her aside, tying the cuffs behind her back. “You’re not going anywhere.”
Cora groaned. Her throat was starting to relax, and the air was coming back. Every limb burned.
You never had a chance you know.” He said, not unkindly. “You’ve got guts, and you’ve got conviction. But none of that can help you. It’s like Morgan always says: In a room full of people, what do you call the only man with a gun?”
Cora summoned all her might and was able to let out a wet cough, make her shoulders roll a little. Enough to get her on her side, so she could gaze blearily up at him… and then she saw past him and thought she was hallucinating.
Randall turned back to the console, and his gaze slowly lifted to look out the front windows, and see a face staring back at him. It was Tai. No regulator, just a breath mask. Barely a wetsuit. He was staring in from the ocean, and looked as horrified as Randall.
The Stingray Enforcer let out a series of muffled curses and tried the radio again. When that failed, he moved to the controls. “You’re right about one thing, Miss Bridger.” Randall commented. “We’re a long way from Light Water, and this piece of Aquan Pride doesn’t drive anything like a proper submarine, but basics are still basics.”
Tai was swept off the port instantly, and Cora could feel the deckplate shiver as Randall sped up. They would be out of the Trench in a few seconds…
Time enough for Cora to haul her whole body up to her knees. The rising boat was tilted as it ascended, which was just enough to help her get one foot flat on the floor. “You wanna s-see conv-v-iction?” Cora snarled. “Watch this!”
Randall grabbed for his gun and zapped her again, but Cora wasn’t trying to attack him. With her hands tied behind her back, and no chance of taking him, she made the only move she could.
She threw her body against the co-pilots controls.
The Hydra Hawk suddenly went into a steep dive. Randall swore again and grabbed for the controls in front of him, but Cora had been Stung again, and was nothing but dead weight, holding the control stick forward.
Cora, facedown against the console, couldn’t breathe, in or out, and her eyes wouldn’t focus, but she caught a momentary reflection off the panel in front of her. For a split second, she could see what was ahead.
She had driven them into the walls of the Macallan Trench.
NO!” Randall cried out in numb horror, throwing his arms across his face in a futile crash position.
There was a crash that seemed to shake the universe apart, and Cora felt her body get thrown against the Plexiglas, then the floor, then the wall. There was the sound of water, and Cora waited to die. At that depth, any tiny break in the porthole would be instantly fatal… But the leak wasn’t in the viewport, it was…
She didn’t know. She couldn’t move, but she could feel the icy water collecting under her, as she lay facedown, paralyzed. The water was deep enough to submerge her face and nose.
She almost wanted to laugh. The second shot from Randall’s weapon had seized her every muscle. Including her lungs. She wasn’t taking in breath. She couldn’t if she tried. Randall had kept her from drowning already. But the icy water was rising.
She felt Randall brush against her. He wasn’t moving either. Little by little, her limbs started moving again. She could feel the water lifting her as it grew deeper, and she used all her strength to turn herself over, floating faceup instead of facedown.
There was enough in her movements to take in a tiny breath. She could taste smoke. The cockpit went pitch-black. The electrics were out.
Tai… Did I dream you?
The water was cold and icy and dark and Cora could feel her breath coming back just as her limbs started going numb and dead.
There was a brushing against her feet and Cora realized it was the ceiling. The Hydra Hawk cockpit had filled up enough that she was bumping against the ceiling. One breath left. Two at most.
But there was nowhere to go. The record was 124 meters, and she was still in the Trench.
Cora felt a warm hand grab her by the shoulders and pull her under. She would have reacted, but she still couldn’t move… but then a mask went over her nose and mouth, and she tasted airmix. Randall?
No. Not Randall. There was light now, from some source that Cora couldn’t identify… But she saw her hero clearly. It was Tai.
Am I still dreaming? Or is this what death by drowning is like?
Her breath was coming back, though the cold made it hard to move her limbs again. As the air filled her lungs slowly, she started getting her brain clear. Tai was indeed there, alive, and pulling her through the Hawk towards the hatch.
She was too stunned to put up a fight, and she moved with him as best she could. They made it all the way to the Dive Hatch, including the wetsuits. Tai found hers and pulled off the support unit, including the heating pack.
He’s not wearing a suit. Cora thought, full of wonder. He’s breathing from an emergency pack. How is he alive?
They both swam out into the trench, and Cora suddenly saw the lights for what they were. It was a cloud of Don’s phosphorescent fish.
She looked back at Tai, and found he was having no trouble at all. The wetsuit he was wearing was something she had never seen before. It wasn’t loaded with equipment, no readouts, no bulky helmet, or facemask that could fog up. No fins to give him traction against the water, no regulators to help him with changes in pressure.
Cora was so cold she was starting to be warm again, and Tai looked like he was taking a quick dive in a heated training pool. As Cora’s brain started to go fuzzy, she suddenly realized how right he looked just now. It was like he had emerged from the ocean himself, one of those famous mythical water nymphs or mermaids that her mom had told her about when she was a girl. With a cloud of glowing ocean life keeping perfect pace with them, there wasn’t even darkness. The two of them flew like a cloud, floating together, like they were the only two people in the universe.
This is what I wanted, forever...
Awed, Cora felt the cold finally seep into her brain, and she gratefully passed out.
~~/*\~~
She came back to herself, feeling deliciously warm, wrapped in softness. Lights were on. Artificial ones, but they were warm and friendly and Cora let herself breathe deeply.
Breathing deeply was a mistake, and she started coughing almost immediately, lungs on fire.
He was there instantly, tucking the blankets around her tightly. As awareness grew, Cora realized she was covered in emergency heat packs. The idyllic faded into reality, and Cora felt her lungs burning. “Hi.” She coughed.
Tai smiled at her, put a gentle kiss on her forehead. “This is the third time in a year I’ve had to tow you to safety before you drowned. I’m starting to wonder why you want to stay in the ocean.”
Cora smiled for him, and raised a trembling hand. “Randall?”
Dead.” Tai reported. “Knocked cold by the crash, facedown like you. Drowned in ten inches of seawater.”
If he hadn’t zapped me twice, my lungs would have worked enough that I could say the same.” Cora coughed. “Where are we?”
The Decompression Chamber.” Tai said, and even under present circumstances, he couldn’t hide the smile.
Cora smiled back. “Recreating our first date. How sweet.”
Hardly our first date.” Tai scoffed. “If memory serves, you spent half the time waiting for me to shiv you, before you found out we were on the same side all along.”
Cora coughed again. “Oh, one more thing?”
Yes?”
HOW THE HELL ARE YOU ALIV-” Cora broke off coughing like she was never going to breathe again.
Tai was there instantly, helping her sit up and clear her lungs. When she settled back, Tai told his story. “So, I go back to my room, and a bag goes over my head. I can’t tell what color it is, but I know it’s bad, so I’m making my peace. I wake up in Circular Quay.”
What was it like?” She asked reflexively. Even in the middle of this story, Tai was the first person she knew who had gone into the Quay and lived to tell about it.
A lot better lit than we thought. Smaller on the inside. They don’t… keep many prisoners long term. There are places for prisoners to work.” He shook his head. “A lot of people who never knew us, Cora. I thought I’d recognize more of them.”
Cora let out a breath, coughing a little.
Anyway, the prisoners have their assignments. Mine was… testing.” Tai sighed. “Then Don comes in.”
Don?” Cora was stunned. “Don knows you’re alive? When was this?”
Oh, I have no idea. No clock, no shift announcements, the lights stay the same round the clock. I was drifting in and out fairly often…” Tai shook his head. “I lost track of what month it was, let alone what day.” He squeezed her hand. “Anyway, Don sits down next to me, tells me there’s a way to get me out, but the catch is, I can’t tell anyone until after Landfall. I ask him if I can get word to you, and he says no. You’re the one person who absolutely can’t know.”
Cora sighed. “He wasn’t wrong. I went a little crazy when you were taken. Stingray was all over me. Morgan even put his prize Bagman in my boat without me knowing it.”
Tai nodded. “Don had me strapped to a table for two days. Started with an injection. I don’t know what was in it, but I was sweating and twitching like I had the Pox. I wake up on day three, and Don dumps me facedown in a seawater tank, still strapped down. I don’t know what I did, but I know he’s not letting me up.” He smiled a bit. “So, I’m freakin’ out. I figure that’s it, whatever Don was planning to do to get me out of there, it wasn’t going to happen. I kick at the straps, but they’re on tight, and I’m going down for the third time, when I realize something: I’m having no trouble at all holding my breath.”
Cora stared. “I wasn’t hallucinating, was I? You really were free swimming in the Trench.”
Cora, I had the record for one breath. 124 meters. I can triple that now.” Tai pronounced grandly. “I have no idea what was in that injection, but I know that it did something to me. I can cover almost three hundred vertical feet without having to equalize. I can stay under almost six minutes, before I need to breathe. I swear, for a while there, I thought I had gills.”
Amazing.” Cora breathed.
I’m in that tank, still wondering why I haven’t drowned yet, when Don signals me. He makes the signal for ‘deadman’s float’. You know, like when you don’t know down from up so you play dead and let the water buoy you?”
Cora nodded, caught up in the story.
So I play dead, and Don drains the water, takes the whole table out of the tank, and slides me into… well, a coffin. When he seals the coffin, I realize there’s an emergency air bladder in there. One of the ten minute supply jobs. Small enough that nobody would notice it, even in a box. He closes the coffin lid, and I feel it pressure seal.”
It wasn’t a coffin, it was a lifepod…” Cora was awed. “Hades, all those coffins dumped in the Macallan Trench, and…”
That was my first question too.” Tai nodded. “But no. Not all of them. But more than you think. Almost a hundred by now. I’m told they’ll all be like me in a few weeks. I’m not the first ‘successful test’. We’ve got lots of lost friends there, Cora. All our people.” His eyes was shining as he beamed at her. “Ano is there, Cora.”
Ano?” Cora felt her hands go to her mouth in wonder. “Ano’s alive?!”
She is. She misses you.” He leaned in and kissed her soundly. “Almost as much as I do, love.”
Cora was stunned, trying to find the first question. “Where?”
There are caves in the Macallan. At that depth, nobody comes close enough to find them. You and I almost stumbled onto one, the last time we got put in here.” Tai grinned. “Don told us not to let anyone look, and we nearly killed ourselves keeping each other away from a place that we both live in now.”
It’s a colony?” Cora breathed. “Wait, what do you mean ‘we both’?”
Well, the Hydra went down.” Tai told her. “How else do we explain you getting here? We can’t. So, as far as your father is concerned…”
I’m dead?” Cora guessed. “No. Won’t work. Randall was in the Hawk with me. I’ll bet you a week’s ration that Stingray’s already on the way.” She sat up and tossed the blankets aside. “How long was I out?”
Long enough.” Tai was moving too. “I went back for your divesuit once I was sure you were going to live. It’s in the Docking Bay. Lucky we didn’t go deep enough that you had to spend another three weeks decompressing.”
And then there’s you, who’ll never need to decompress again.” Cora said quietly, and took his face in her hands. “Love you, Stripes.”
Love you, Shells.” He said with a smile. “The Hydra can’t be salvaged, at least not by Ark-Hive subs. I’m sorry. But we can make it to the Colony and run silent until they’re convinced you went down.”
I… I can’t do that.” Cora said uncertainly.
I know it sounds like a risky plan, but trust me: They’ve been hiding out there for almost a year, and nobody had any idea. You only knew because we recognised the boat and tried to reach you.”
No, Tai.” She made him look at her. “I can’t. I have to go back.”
He blinked. “Cora… this was everything we ever wanted. An Exodus. Just us, for now, but… The whole ocean is open to us once they stop looking. We can do it now, for real. It’s not a daydream! I need a tenth of the oxygen, I don’t need a regulator… The cold is the only thing left that can bother me, and you know we always talked about heading south, where the water is warm...”
I know.” Cora whispered. “And I still want that more than anything. But I can’t just yet.” She kissed him soundly. “I thought you were dead.” She admitted. “Tai… I… made some choices. When you and Ano ‘died’ I did some hard thinking.” She took a deep breath. “And I think you were right all along. I should have gotten a lot more serious about this years ago.”
Tai winced. “I did say that, didn’t I?” He didn’t sound happy. “Cora, all the people we love are in the Colony, waiting for you to leave the Ark-Hive.”
I know. But I have to go back and finish what I started. I can’t ride the wake anymore.” Cora said quietly. “You know why? Because now I’m asking the question you would have asked if you weren’t so busy being thrilled to be alive.”
Tai blinked. “What?”
How long has Don had this miracle Aquan Formula?”
Tai shook his head. “Don’t know. Judging by the people in the Macallan, at least a year or two.”
Cora nodded. “One year and maybe eight months, I’m betting.”
Why?”
Leave that with me.” She said quietly. “Tai…” She just stared at him for a long time, thrilling in the fact that he was alive. “Tai, I wish I could explain to you what it was like, when I found out you had been Bagged. It was like I could see through the world suddenly. It was like the whole ocean was suddenly put together so completely and I could see the whole of it, in such… perfect clarity.” She kissed him again. “And now it’s happening again. I feel like I can see the future, it’s so blazingly obvious now. I know exactly what to do. I don’t need an order, I don’t need a teacher, a Cell Leader, a secret anything… I feel like I can read the whole universe now that I know about the Colony…” She held him tightly. “It was you, Tai. You were the missing piece that made the whole universe make such perfect sense. I know exactly how I’m going to do this.”
Do what?” Tai asked, a little freaked out by her intensity.
I’m going to end the battle between the Aquans and the Earthers. I’m going to take out Morgan. I’m going to become Director. I’m going to shut down the Quay, I’m going to pull off the Exodus without anyone even knowing it’s happening, and I’m going to give every Earther exactly what they need.” Cora listed the goals off on her fingers like she was reading a checklist. “I can do it now. I can see it all, and it’s so obvious that I almost hate Don and my father for not doing it themselves a year ago.”
Long silence.
Tell me more.” Tai breathed.
There came a single loud tone ringing through the chamber.
Single ping sonar.” Cora didn’t even blink. “Right on time. That’s Stingray, looking for me.” Cora took a breath, and wiped a single tear away. “I love you, Stripes.”
Love you, Shells.” He said automatically, unnerved.
It’s important that you know that. Because we may not be able to walk away from this with a happy ending.” She was already pulling on her wetsuit.
Cora… what are you planning?” Tai asked, worried now.
It’s not what I’m planning, Tai. It’s what Don is planning, what Morgan is planning… and what I’m going to do about it.” She told him. “And I need you to trust me right now… because they have to see you.”
WHAT!?” Tai blurted. “You have any idea what happens if Stingray finds out about the Colony?”
Tai, the Colony can’t stay hidden anymore.” She told him. “But I have to be the one to tell my father, and the only way I can do that without getting Bagged myself is with your help.” She gave him a hard look. “Tai, it’s time. Before I’m done I’m going to set fire to the freakin’ ocean. I promise: We’ll see each other again. But right now, I need you to put it all on the line, and you have only your trust in me to decide.” She pulled the mask on. “Because I don’t have time to talk you through why.”
Tai studied her a moment. “Cora, if you need me to trust you without understanding why, then of course, I will.”
~~/*\~~
Cora came out of the Pressure Chamber and swam back towards the Trench. Somewhere down there was a community of people, hidden by rock, and depth and darkness. People like her. People who wanted what she wanted.
And she had just turned down the invitation to join them. The idea almost made her laugh.
She could just barely make out the faint glow of the Hydra Hawk’s Emergency lighting. Through almost five hundred feet of water. Cora had no idea where in the Trench the hiding place was, but she knew how undersea caves worked. It could be the size of Cameron Outpost easily, if the people there were equipped.
Cora! Cora safe! Found you!” Cora’s TABB relayed a translation, almost before she heard the dolphin’s clicks and whistles.
Surprised, Cora turned to find Delphi charging towards her. The dolphin bent double to pull himself into a sudden stop, inches from her.
Cora safe! Tai safe! Tai alive! Cora go to Tai. Cora safe.” Delphi clicked again, and Cora softened, realizing.
Sorry if I scared you, partner. I’m sorry, I should have brought you with me when I came.” Cora embraced Delphi gently, glad to see him. But then the spotlight fell over them, and she realized how her friend had gotten there so fast. Two Stingray craft, small and fast, were hovering over the wreck of the Hydra Hawk. The spotlights played back and forth, and one of them settled on the body of Randall.
It was only a matter of seconds before they found her too. She sent a glance back to Tai, who was already swimming away. He turned back just in time to make a few hand signals. ‘Be safe.’
Cora rolled her eyes, and swam out with Delphi towards her escort craft.
It takes too long to get from the Ark-Hive to the Trench for them to come from the distress call. Cora thought. Morgan had me followed, even after putting Randall in my boat.
The spotlights found her quickly. One of the Stringray craft circled to pick her up. Delphi pushed her up to the hatch.
~~/*\~~
What happened?” Was the first question when the airlock had cycled.
Cora had no answer for him. She had no time to prepare any kind of a story. “I’m not sure.” She groaned out. It wasn’t hard to act like she had sprained ribs and trouble breathing. She just prayed the bruises on her throat didn’t look too much like Randall’s fingers.
Look!” A voice squawked over the radio. “Ninety degrees below! Looks like a… man. No suit, no transponder, but he’s definitely swimming! Tiger Two, are you seeing this? He’s swimming into the trench! Do we pursue?”
Negative; this is a recovery mission, and we’ve found her.”
Cora let out a wet cough. Tai hadn’t escaped unnoticed.
Put me in touch with my father as soon as we get back to Light Water!” She commanded. “We’ve found the enemy stronghold!”
~~/*\~~
31 Days To Landfall
~~/*\~~
It was just after midnight when Cora received her first visitor in Medbay. She wasn’t surprised to see it was Don. He tapped at his TABB. “The Stingray guards on Duty aren’t paying much attention to the inside of this room, given the time of night, and the fact that you're here alone. But we should still keep it short.”
This is gutsy.” Cora observed. “With Randall dead in the Trench, you know I’m a suspect. So you make sure to speak to me alone first? You don’t think Morgan will get ideas from that?”
I’m sure he will, but we’re getting close to the end of this road, wherever it’s leading.” Don said, looking old. “Your father is looking for reasons why you were descending into the Trench, and hoping that it’s not a sign you were suicidal. The official word is that you were in the Trench to mourn loved ones, and stumbled onto an Aquan cache, which happened to be inhabited; and you were lucky to make it to the Pressure Chamber in time to survive and wait for recovery.”
All of which is true.” Cora nodded, glaring balefully at him. “All this time, I thought the reason nobody made it out of the Quay was because of Morgan. Turns out it was you.”
You overestimate the time I have spare, Cora.” Don snorted. “I’m a very small part of what happens over there.”
But still more than I knew about before.” She reminded him.
I tried to tell you.” Don admitted. “When Ano was taken, the one thing she asked me to do was send word to you. Didn’t know you were Aquan, but she still wanted to tell you she was okay. She loves you so much.” He saw her glare. “When Tai was bagged, I tried to get word to you immediately, but Morgan was all over you by then. He’d tracked the flow of information close enough that he moved on Ano, then Tai… I didn’t dare send a message the usual way.” His head tilted. “You look at me so angrily, Cora. You know I don’t tell anyone everything.”
You told Tai that he wasn’t the first successful test.” Cora grated. “What happened to all the ‘unsuccessful’ ones?”
And there’s the reason why.” Don sighed. “You’re a good person, Cora. In the face of your own father ordering the arrest, and likely execution of your surrogate mom, your lover, and anyone else who cares as much as you do about the things you care about, you get mad at me. When I tell you that it worked, that the Aquan Dream has been kicked up to the next level, and that your dear, beloved Tai has not only been returned to you from the brink of death, but has achieved what we always thought was too good to be true and become a borderline amphibious human… the only thing you ask about is the ones I couldn’t save. You’ve got an enormous heart, but you waste it on your enemies, Cora. You’d be running the Ark-Hive if you could just pick a side.”
I have picked a side.”
Have you? You can’t let the Earthers go. Our whole hope hangs on the ability of the Aquans to leave, but you put us all in danger to save the Earthers. Your whole plan in life is to never look your father in the eye and tell him you’re his enemy.”
I’m not his-” Cora caught herself, and insisted. “I’ve made my choice. As have you, it seems.”
Meaning?”
"When I found out that the whole Ark-Hive had Weir Syndrome, I confronted my father about it. He told me that he's had his best people working on a cure; and they came back with nothing. His exact words were: ‘They expected to have something in three months, but it’s two years later, and they can’t crack it’." She gave him a hard look. "His best people. He meant you, right? You're the best Gene-Hacker alive, Don.” She glared at him. “So, here's what I think. I think my father told you to find a cure for all the people who would find the surface to be fatal. I think you found one in three months as advertised, but what my father doesn't know is that you're the leader of the Aquan Movement for this generation, and you suddenly realize that what you've found is something far more useful to you than a safe Landfall. The Cure is also a treatment that can make humans borderline amphibious. The Aquan Dream, finally realized.”
Don was silent for a long moment. “Clever girl.” He admitted. “How’d you work that out?”
It was so blazingly obvious once I found out about Tai's... transformation.” She started listing on her fingers. “Immunity to pressure changes. Better breathing control, oxygen saturation, metabolizing nitrogen molecules... Those are fixes for the symptoms of Weir Syndrome. So you find the cure, and make a quick judgement call. You keep it a secret."
Don nodded. "I thought that if I kept the cure a secret, your father would cancel Landfall. But when he realized you might get sick too, he kicked it into gear anyway.”
And you still kept it a secret.” Cora pressed. “My father’s been burning up the ocean trying to keep the damn schedule, because he’s desperate to get me up there and in charge before I hit the saturation point and get Weir Syndrome myself. You tell him there’s a cure…”
And what? Will he suddenly relax? Make a deal? Treat us as Equals?” Don challenged. “Can you see any scenario where your father will sit down and make peace?”
No, I look to you for that.” Cora coughed a little. “You kept the cure a secret, because as long as nobody knows about it, either the Ark-Hive falls apart from the rush to get to the surface, or Landfall succeeds, and I get installed as Director. No matter what happens, you win.”
Cora, does it occur to you that having you as Director was inevitable?” He pushed her. “You’re his only child. You’re an Aquan. Why hasn’t it ever dawned on you that you could save the entire Aquan dream without having to pull off an Exodus?”
It should have.” Cora admitted. “It dawned on Tai immediately; and no doubt you as well.” She shook her head. “But I was barely a teenager, too hung up on not wanting the job, and too eager to have you as my dad when the father I had turned cold.”
He wasn’t cold, Cora. He was heartbroken.”
I know. So was I.” Cora admitted. “Which is why it never occurred to me that you swept right in and recruited me instantly. With mom gone, it was clear who my father would make the next Director. You recruited me, while Morgan went straight for my dad and promised him revenge on ‘those murdering Aquans’. So Morgan had total power over all of us, and you had a hidden ace for more than ten years.” She shook her head. “It was perfect. Even knowing the truth about how my mom died, I never pegged the implications.” She looked up at him. “But you did, didn’t you? That’s where the Exodus began. An escape that meant you’d never have to actually face Morgan directly.”
The Exodus was a plan that I never really thought would work.” Don admitted. “Just too many things to keep floating at once.”
So you got a Plan B ready.” Cora finished. “Me. Keep me on your side, work on your projects, quietly have your people listed as ‘deceased’ and shipped out to the Macallan, and wait until it was time for me to take my father’s chair.”
I had hoped the Exodus might work, and I had expected your ascension to take another twenty years.” Don nodded. “One thing you know about me, Cora: I’m patient.”
But then my dad realized he already had Weir Syndrome and everything became about getting me up there young enough to establish a dynasty that would last forever.” Cora scowled. And I let it play out, because I was so used to following instructions. “One more thing. You turned Tai in, didn’t you?”
Don said nothing.
Tai insisted that nobody knew he was the Pirate Broadcast.” Cora ticked off on her fingers. “But Morgan was able to narrow it down by whoever had access to the truth about Weir Syndrome. If Morgan honestly thought I’d given it to him, I’d be dead right now, no matter what my father said. The only way they’d take Tai and spare me, is if Tai was arrested for a whole other reason.”
Don sighed. “Once I worked out it was Tai, I knew your days were numbered. I still had a chance to save Tai, and keep you right where you were, on the edge of becoming Director. But I couldn’t have both, unless I turned Tai in.” Don held up a hand. “And it worked. Tai’s alive, you’re not a suspect, and-”
And the Colony is an inch away from being discovered.” Cora warned.
You were smart, not to play dumb.” Don praised her. “By reporting it immediately, you put yourself above suspicion. Even if they find the colony before we can get everyone out, you’re clean…”
And an Aquan as Director? Worth more than a hundred Aquan operatives, or even your secret colony.” Cora nodded, feeling her childhood affection for the man cool a little further. “And Randall? Because you were there when I told them I was going out to the Trench. Why didn’t you warn me I had a stowaway?”
What makes you think I knew?” Don challenged.
Long silence.
You could leverage the cure, Don.” Cora said quietly. “We could actually call a truce and have genuine peace. They go back to the Surface, we stay here. The cure means we can have both.”
We could have had both at any point in a hundred years, kid.” Don said seriously. “But just having this conversation would get both of us killed. That’s not because of me.”
I know.” Cora sighed. “Time?”
Don checked the jammer. “Close enough that we should wrap this up. Get some sleep.”
Don, the Colony doesn’t have long. There aren’t a lot of craft with weapons that can handle that depth. But that won’t keep my father or Morgan away for long. They’ll send everything they’ve got. What’s your next move?”
Don’t worry, I’ve got it sorted.” Don promised, leaving the room. “You’ve done your part, Cora. Just look after yourself for now.”
A month ago she would have taken that as enough. A month ago she would have trusted him implicitly, and never wondered for more.
But not any more.
You get all that?” Cora asked quietly.
Nix pushed the blanket aside and emerged from under her cot, looking quietly stunned. “He knew. He knew Randall was in your sub, he knew about… I had no idea.”
Me neither, until recently.” Cora sighed. “Nix, I need someone who still trusts me. Are you in?”
Wh-what are we going to do?”
We’re going to take over the world.” Cora said, matter of factly.

~~/*\~~~/*\~~~~/*\~~~/*\~~


Note From The Author: I hope you're all enjoying The Ark-Hive, in its serialised format. if you'd rather not wait until the next chapter is published, you can head over to Amazon, and buy the whole book; in a complete ebook format.