Undersea, page 1
Table of Contents
About the Author
In the darkness of the deep, Thom Vargas slept.
The damp, cramped, cold cockpit pressed in around him, a dormant barrier to the sea beyond. At their dimmest, the backlit buttons on the console before him normally wouldn’t have looked lit at all. But at this depth, they pierced the darkness like suns.
A new crimson beacon flared up near the top of the panel, just below the blackness of the depths outside. It started to flash, brighter and brighter with each pulse, faster and faster, with a sense of urgency all its own. The cockpit was lit, then dark, lit, then dark, bathed in blood red light then near total darkness.
Still, Thom slept.
He slept as the platter-sized central screen came to life, adding a new, steady, bluish glow to the tiny cockpit. He slept as the rest of the panel came to life, buttons, levers, more screens. The new hum of equipment masked the quiet gurgling of the sea, and after a moment it too was replaced by the louder drone of engines.
Thom’s body convulsed, his right leg jabbing out, kicking the hard underside of the console. His head jerked forward, narrowly missing the roof of the sub, but connecting with the viewscreen. He groggily tried to rub both new aches at once. “Thom! Are you at your quota yet?”
Thom hit the comm button on the well-worn arm of his seat.
“You’re killing me, Tagger. Killing me.”
“Quota. Yes or no?”
“Yeah, pretty much. I’ll get the rest on my way back in.”
“You will, or...”
Tagger let out a sound that seemed half growl, half exasperated sigh, and said nothing else.
A white-green blob on the edge of the screen grew in size rapidly as it inched toward the center. Its real life counterpart suddenly appeared out of the darkness, its running lights adding their own mix to the illumination of the cockpit. The keel was so close, had there been no canopy or sea, Thom could have reached up and touched it. His sub pitched forward in the wake, dumping Thom forward towards the console and half out of his chair before the autogyros reacted, dumping him back in his seat as his sub righted itself.
Tagger’s craft quickly faded back into the black while Thom went about waking his sub—and himself—the rest of the way up. The cockpit illumination rose enough to make visible all the non-backlit switches and toggles. The engines made their presence even more known. Satisfied that everything looked correct, Thom edged the throttle forward and he was gently pushed back into his seat. Aside from the motion on his screen, that gentle force was the only indication he was moving forward. Outside, through the panoramic viewscreen, everything was still black.
He pulled back on the stick, and watched the depth bleed away. After a few moments, the sub passed an invisible layer, and everything started to get brighter. More objects started appearing on the central display. Then even more. He nosed off his ascent, made a minor course correction, and throttled up even more. The sub shuttered against the strain of the engines. A school of fish darted past him, reminding him to reel in his net with the tug of a lever near his left knee. He felt the engines strain against the pull.
And then the main console display was taken over by a new sight: at the top of the screen, a single, enormous white-green blob stretched from one side to the other, crawling slowly down the display, consuming smaller blobs as it moved. Soon it occupied the entire top half of the screen. Thom throttled back.
It was hard to make out at first, just water against water. Then, a darker area in an otherwise uniform ocean. From the blacker than black, details began to emerge. Then there it was, stretching as far as the eye could see in either direction: the citysub Universalis.
Thom aimed for the keel and soon the larger ship towered over him. Its oblong form bulged in the middle, and as the small fishing sub neared the hull, it entered the ship’s gigantic shadow, bathing the cockpit in darkness again. Above him, two parallel rows of amber lights blinked along the hull, leading him towards a glowing opening near the bottom of the larger sub. The lights turned red as he approached and Thom throttled his sub to a stop. He keyed the comm.
“Fishing Sub 2439 requesting docking and offload at bay 224.”
“Request granted, 2439. Have a good nap, Thom?”
“Take a swim, Pol.”
Thom used the thruster controls on the top of the stick to nudge his way towards the beckoning bay. The amber lights that led him this far continued along the edges of the rectangular bay. They converged in an “X” on the far bay wall. Thom lined up, and brought the sub in right on the target. Looking up and out of the viewscreen he could see his sub in the reflection in the underside of the surface of the water. There was a metallic thunk. The sub jerked downward for a moment, and then rose steadily upwards.
The rectangular bay had a dozen fishing subs like Thom’s lined up along its white-paneled long wall, parallel to the pool. Ahead was an empty cradle with myriad hoses—small ones along the sides, and a large one underneath—awaiting attachment. Thom started powering down the submersible as it made its way up out of the pool and towards the awaiting offload and refuel cradle. Streaks of water ran down the viewscreen. By the time the sub was seated, he had already popped the hatch and was heading down the ladder that hung from the rolling crane above.
A dozen people hooked up hoses, checked the sub for damage, and cleaned parts that needed cleaning. Notes were made on whatever it was the blue uniformed technicians needed to take notes on. Water streamed off the sub into grates on the floor below.
“Pol,” he said to a short man with long brown hair and a headset. Pol had the build of a man that could drag one of the fishing subs across the deck with his own bare hands, if he wanted.
“You should have heard Tag on the comm after he found you.”
“My question is, why was he looking for me?”
“OK, I guess you have a point there.” One of the technicians with a clipboard approached the pair, and handed Pol a sheet of paper. “Made your quota again.”
“I always make my quota.”
“Maybe your quota should be higher.”
“Then I’ll still make this quota, and everyone will think I’m lazy. Then they’ll assign me this quota again, and everything will be back to where it was. So… what’s the point?” Thom said with a bit of a smirk. Pol made some notes on his own clipboard, and handed it to Thom for his signature.
“Here, take your receipt. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Thom left the bay and caught the beige tram just before it left. The five brown vinyl benches, torn in places and marked with graffiti in others, were little more than half full as the car scraped along the bowels of the ship, passing bay after identical bay. The floor and walls were permanently damp, causing an odd mixture of rust and growth that required non-stop maintenance. The tram passed a team of engineers, one of many, whose fulltime job was to scrape off the rust and make repairs just to this boulevard. The lighting, as far as could be seen, was barely adequate. Occasionally they passed a bay with an open lock, creating a trapezoid of cool light glistening on the wet floor.
The tram came to a stop in front of a bank of elevators with an unhealthy screech. The seven other tram passengers entered one of the elevators as it arrived, none paying attention to each other or Thom any more than he did them. As they rose up into the heart of the sub, his communicator vibrated on his ear as he suspected it would. He tapped it.
“I don’t know how you do those early shifts, T. I’m meeting the boys at this place called Waves up on 8 for lunch if you’re interested. Figure we can get an early start on tonight. Kidding. Sort of.”
The elevator doors slid aside to reveal a wide open courtyard, and the flood of light caused all aboard to squint. The vast space was called the “Basket.” The far end was obscured by rows of stores in the foreground and some trees in a small central park area beyond. Around the elevator, the well-worn deck tiles continued to a path along the outer edges. It would have taken Thom a good ten minutes to run to the opposite side of the Basket. Lengthwise it was even longer. This was the rearmost central communal space on the Universalis, and second largest.
As the others from the elevator scattered, indifferent to the sights, Thom took it all in. Maybe it was because he was cooped up for hours each day in a tiny sub, but he enjoyed strolling through the Basket. That he had so many memories here didn't hurt.
The walls of the Basket looked like the exterior hulls of a few dozen different ships, which is exactly what they were. Along the deck level were the exteriors of a pair of full-size submarines, with doors cut into them at different access points. Further along were the blank reddish metal of the hulls of three tankers. Their double hulls housed several “secret” forts from Thom's youth. Thom realized there was far more rust on those hulls than there had been when he was younger. Or maybe he just never noticed it before. At the far end was the bulbous nodes of a former (well still, technically) under sea laboratory. These former vessels were matched, more or less, on the opposite side for some semblance of symmetry.
Stacked above these were predominantly cruise ships, their porthole and balcony bedecked hulls looking something like a bizarre themed hotel. Above these, squeezed in close to the roof, were elaborate yachts and streamlined sailing vessels. Thom spotted one of these yachts about halfway down the Basket where his first girlfriend lived. She still might, he realized, not that he had any interest finding out.
Every former ship was wedged, fused and patched together to create the Basket—a clumsy patchwork of vessels precariously clinging together to form the walls of the great open space. The ceiling was painted light blue, with a picosun in the middle, too bright to look at. The whole courtyard was lit like a park at noon, except without the skin-tingling warmth of a real sun. The air was an assaulting mixture of mildew, wet steel, and humanity. Sensitive noses could try to pick up, underneath, the subtle aromas from the nearby cooking stalls.
Cables crisscrossed between the opposing walls, and from these, as well as from every available window or porthole, were hanging gardens of fruit and vegetables, their frail aromas masked by the scented noise.
Thom's work boots clinked softly as he crossed the simple metal deck tile. A clock across from the elevator, crudely attached to the blue-black hull of a former submarine, read 10:22. Running his hand through his dirty, matted black hair, Thom made towards his cabin, knowing he had time for a desperately needed shower.
“But that doesn’t make any sense,” Ralla pleaded with the Council. She brusquely pushed her light blond curls out of her face, a nervous affectation she'd developed in her youth when she felt she needed to look older. She quickly dropped her hand back to her side, knowing the men here knew exactly how old she was.
“Miss Gattley, please remember your presence here is a courtesy,” Council Proctor Jills said coolly. His salt and pepper crop followed the angles of his skull, making him appear, if not menacing, at least very serious. From the Council's collective looks of patronizing amusement, Ralla realized they saw her as a child and a daughter, not the educated young woman she had become. OK, she thought, if a petulant child is what they expect to see, that would work too.
“Fine, then I’ll drag my father out of his bed so he can tell you how stupid you’re being,” she replied. The looks of horror among the eight Council members had the desired effect. “I may be here just as a courtesy, but that doesn’t mean what I have to say isn’t relevant. If my father had brought up these concerns, there’s not one of you who wouldn’t be listening.”
“Maybe so, Miss Gattley, but he isn’t here,” Council Junior Larr said, tipping his gaunt face forward and resting his bony elbows on the conference table. “Perhaps we should take this time to adjourn for the day? Proctor?”
“Agreed, Mr. Larr,” Jills replied. Ralla could feel herself flushing red. The white and beige conference room emptied, each Council member passing her without a glance as they left. She walked around the long black glass table and stepped onto the patio overlooking the Yard.
The Yard was a smaller, squarer version of the Basket. The floor here, though, was alive with greenery: grass, bushes, flowers. Blossoming trees grew around the edges. Enormous vines climbed the aligned hulls of the ships and yachts that made the interior walls. The foliage had gotten so dense, it was nearly impossible to see the ships behind them. In the park below, children were playing under the watchful eye of an adult, though they were all small from Ralla’s height. Ralla took note of several cabins, visible from this vantage, that weren't tending their vines. She wondered if their neighbors had noticed the shabbiness.
The Council Chambers were near the ceiling. The picosun, though still bright, wasn’t overly so thanks to a ring of filters built around it like a lamp shade, shielding the upper ships from too much light. She smoothed out some imagined creases in her delicate and elaborately decorated green frock, and sighed.
It was a short walk to her father’s cabin. The lushly carpeted corridor curved gently to mask its extensive length. Just this section, primarily for the Council members and their staff, would take 25 minutes to walk from end to end, and that didn’t even cover the entire Yard, or the bow where the bridge was. Aft of the Yard was the Garden, and of course the Basket. She had never walked from one end of the ship to the other in one stretch, but had heard some people did it for fun. Then there were the annual races, one of which was a lap around the entire ship. She couldn’t imagine how people could do that.
She entered her father’s cabin without knocking. As she expected, he was standing at the balcony, his burly frame backlit by the picosun’s radiance.
“Get back into bed!” she said with a mixture of annoyance and insistence. If he was startled by her entrance, he didn’t show it.
The cabin wasn’t overly elaborate, at least compared to some of the other Council members’ rooms she had seen. The large bed took up most of one wall, and draperies hung from the others. The floor was wood, something she had never seen anywhere else on the ship. She strode across it, not noticing. Mrakas Gattley turned at his daughter’s approach.
“You nag like your mother.”
“What a surprise,” she reached quickly for his arm, but grasped it gently. With his weight off the balcony railing, he seemed to wither. He shuffled towards the bed, and half fell into it with a stifled cough. “I told the Council that if they didn’t listen to me, I was going to drag you to the next meeting.”
“I’m sure that went over well. I don't suppose Larr had anything to say about that?
“No, of course not,” she said with a smile.
“Well, not much we can do about it now,” he pushed himself up to lean against the soft brown headboard. “If it comes to it, you’ll just have to go public with what you know.”
“I don’t think that will force the Council’s hand.”
“You’re probably right, but if they won’t listen, we’re at a dead end,” he said. Ralla sighed and sat on the edge of the bed. She smoothed out more smoothness in her frock. “I know you don’t like it when I talk that way. It’s easy for me. I know it’s hard for you, and I’ll be more careful.”
“You’re not dead yet.”
“True. But it seems I might as well be,” Mrakas said, taking his daughter’s small hand in his bulky
Thom Vargas had a moment to smile as he flew though the air. Landing hard on the gangway deck, he slid face first into the thin glass separating the gangway from the precipitous drop to the floor of the Basket. Olly, tall, bald, and less than a year older than Thom, landed a moment later, squishing Thom even further into the glass.
“Don't come back. You hear, you bastards? Ever. If you do I'll lock you myself,” said the proprietor of Waves. Clearly stronger than he looked, he glared down at them from the entrance of his bar. Behind him, two other young men looked on, using every bit of their willpower not to break out in laughter. “OK, you two as well. Get out!”
The two other men mocked a look of innocence as they made their way out to the gangway. Thom stood, looked over the railing at the drop, and laughed.
“Can’t say I understand what his problem is,” Thom said, his voice rather slurred.
“Back to The Landing?”
“Lead on, Hett,” he said to his bearded friend. Yullsin, the diminutive fourth member, had succumbed to the giggles. The boys made their way along the gangway. Barely wide enough for three of them, Yullsin followed a step behind. More than once they had to go single file to let someone pass. Each time they received dirty looks.
“They’re just jealous,” Thom said.
“What,” Olly asked. “That they’re sober and we’re not?”
“Exactly,” he answered with a grin.