When the hull ruptured and a sheet of super pressurized water cut Brian Parr in half it happened so fast Herrigan didn’t even realize what had taken place until he was half way out of the galley. After ten years on underwater salvage ships, where one trip without a fatal accident was considered a minor miracle, he had gotten to the point where reacting to disaster was a subconscious instinct and it served him in good stead, just like it always had in the past. He was stepping through the pressure door into the mess hall, running a hand along the seal to check it’s integrity through sheer force of habit, before his conscious mind even registered that Parr was dead.
“Everybody out!” Herrigan yelled as he ducked through the hatch. “Hull breach in the galley, this door’s compromised.”
To their credit, the scattered handful of the Erin’s Dream‘s crew that was in the mess reacted just as fast as Herrigan had, jumping up from their tables without bothering to take anything but the essentials. Men poured out of the hall and into the corridor beyond in a matter of seconds, not that it was a large room, leaving Herrigan to again check the door seal and dog the hatch behind him. He brushed his hands off and said, “This door’s good, we should be okay.”
“If the captain had just McClained the hull before this trip we wouldn’t even have to worry about it,” said one of the men in the hall with him, a skinny fellow who was still clutching the cup of coffee he’d been nursing before being evicted from the mess. “That stuff almost never-”
“Shut up, Drip,” Herrigan snapped. “Has anyone reported this to the bridge yet?”
“On it!” A voice called from in the next compartment. As if to emphasize the point alarms started ringing.
“-I know I would have taken a pay cut on the last run if it would have meant-”
Herrigan grabbed Drip by the shoulder and gave him a hard shove towards the ladder. “I said stow it, Drip. Get to your posts, people.”
“Herrigan!” A head popped out of the hatch just beyond the small crowd. “Bridge wants you.”
With a growl, he reversed course and shouldered his way through the dispersing men and into the small electrical closet just beyond. “What is it?” He asked.
“Captain, we’re showing flooding in compartment 132.”
Oscar Duffy, captain and co-owner of the Erin’s Dream, looked up from his weight management tables, leaving the mystery of the overburdened water pumps in the forward compartments to be worked out later. If it still mattered at all. The cramped bridge of the salvage submarine didn’t have much in the way of space between monitors so he barely needed to stand up and slide a step to the right in order to look over the shoulder of the engineer on watch.
“What’s the situation, Graham?” He asked.
“The galley is flooding fast.” Graham looked up over his shoulder. “I’d almost say it’s a mercy to be spared the chow, except Herrigan turned them out of the mess hall too. Not sure why yet, but if the seal between them is compromised we’re gonna loose ’em both. That could bottom us.”
Duffy grit his teeth and restrained the urge to spit, irritation conflicting with a naturally tidy personality, with the knowledge that a part of his ship was already a wreck the only thing that kept him from spitting. “Sound the hull breach alarm, then.”
“Alarms are already going off, Captain,” the XO announced, the blaring sound that accompanied her as she stepped through the pressure door serving to emphasize the point.
“Why isn’t it sounding here?” Duffy demanded.
“Because it’s broken,” Graham said, waving a hand around the bridge to encompass the various monitors. “It seemed like a low priority fix because, you know…”
“Right.” Duffy grit his teeth again. “How much water are we looking at?”
“Captain, taken together those two compartments hold something like four times what a single ballast tank holds.” Graham was working through screens at top speed. “Whatever went wrong down there, it’s cut the galley’s hatches out of the monitoring system. If the storage lockers are standing open we could be looking at more.”
Duffy spun and shot his XO a look. “Get ahold of whoever was on galley duty and find out.” She responded with a nod and took her station. Duffy turned back to Graham’s monitor. “Do we have enough ballast in the tanks to maintain buoyancy?”
“Without dumping any of our haul? I don’t think so…”
“Did we leave the freezer open?” Herrigan asked, incredulous. “I don’t know, Gwen, I wasn’t paying attention to everything Brian was doing! There was an inch thick sheet of water spraying in from the hull, I didn’t have time to check.”
“-really ought to have some kind of wireless system on this boat instead of relying on wiring. Who does that any-”
“Captain’s just trying to figure out how much ballast we need to loose to stay buoyant,” Gwen said, her voice nearly lost under the sound of alarms and Drip’s incessant chattering. “Do you know if Parr would have gone in it at all recently?”
“-and we really should have magnetic seals, too-”
Herrigan threw his hands in the air; even though Gwen couldn’t see the gesture it helped his frustration a little. “About ninety percent of what we cook requires something out of the storage locker and Brian can be a bit absent minded so my guess would be yes, it was probably left open. Even if it wasn’t I’m not sure that they could stand up to the pressure this far down. Can’t you just play it by ear?”
“-shouldn’t be chatting up girls when our stations-”
“I’m sure we could, but you know Duffy. Always likes to have his choice of agonies.” There was a moment’s quiet as Gwen spoke to someone on the bridge. Then she asked, “Who is that? Do you have Drip with you?” Herrigan spared a moment’s attention to smack Drip on the shoulder.
“OW! Watch it, Harry. And since when does everybody insist on calling me Drip? My real name-”
“He’s here,” Herrigan said. “I’m not even sure why you had to ask.”
“Can’t you shut him up?” Gwen asked.
“No,” Herrigan said sadly. “He’s like a good luck charm. As long as he’s still talking, we’re not sinking.”
“Surface?” Duffy asked, incredulous. “We’re not in the middle of the Pacific, Graham, we’re barely four hundred miles from Australia. We can’t just go popping up to the surface, what if we get seen? The Wards already hate having privately owned salvage ships out as it is, they’ll have a field day if we’re the ones that remind the surface Alcatraz is still kicking.”
“What’s going on?” Gwen asked, shuffling around the captain’s chair and crowding the Engineering monitor further.
“We need to surface to repair the hull,” Graham said.
“That’s crazy,” Gwen said automatically. “No Trenchmen have been to the surface in eighty years.”
Graham rubbed his forehead like a man with a headache. “This is why dad says you’re too impulsive. You don’t get all the facts before you make a decision.” He cleared his screen and brought up a basic blueprint of the Erin’s Dream. “Now listen, when she was built ten years ago Eddie was a fine ship. Erin McClain herself couldn’t have asked for more. But even if she wasn’t a decade old she couldn’t handle running the Trench with her belly full of water. Trying to fight the current with the weight messed up and the hull compromised would most likely tear us in half.”
Graham tapped the flooded compartments on his screen for emphasis. “You try heading into the Marianas Trench like this and you’re gonna tear this ship in half.”
“Why can’t we patch the hull?” Gwen asked. “Send one of the salvage subs out to slap a patch over the leak.”
“Because we need to patch the inner layer – the pressure hull,” Duffy said, tracing along the line on the schematics. “That would mean peeling off the outer hull and anything between them. Since it’s all one part that would probably just make the weakness in the pressure hull worse.”
“Not to mention what it would do to our hydrodynamic profile,” Graham added. “There’s no way we could run the currents in the Trench safely with a slipshod patch on the outer hull.”
Duffy pressed the palms of his hands into his eyes, suddenly feeling very, very tired. “All right, Graham. We’ll do it your way.” He caught Gwen’s eye and saw his own apprehension mirrored there. “Give the order to take us up.”
Gwen nodded and stepped over to her station then hit the shipwide intercom. “Attention all hands. Prepare for emergency surface.”
“We’re gonna get shot.” Drip slung his Waldo suit’s mask into place and let it dangle around his neck, tucking his helmet under one arm. “The Japanese are gonna find us and shoot us for breaking Kyoto 3 and-”
“Eddie runs on nuclear power,” Herrigan said, giving Drip’s suit a quick check to make sure it was intact. “There’s nothing environmentally unfriendly about that.”
“-cause we’re from the Environmental Extremist Colony and everything we do is bad for the environment!” Drip whipped around and jabbed Herrigan in the chest. “You just see if we’re not buried in cats by the end of the day.”
Drip thumped him in the chest once with a snort of disbelief. “Cats. You know, the samurai thing.”
“Drip, no one ever understands what you’re talking about, but today you’ve really outdone yourself.” He snatched his own helmet off the equipment rack and headed towards the door, Drip hurrying to keep up.
“They’re gonna make us do the honorable death thing, Harry, and I don’t wanna go be done in by allergies. No one in Alcatraz has been around a cat in decades, we’re probably all-”
Herrigan smacked himself in the face. “It’s hara-kiri Drip, not hairy kitties. Get in your Waldos people!” He raised his voice to carry through the launching dock. “If you think the Duff isn’t gonna flood this place and dump the subs whether we’re in ’em or not you’re in for a surprise. Eddie won’t be light enough to surface until they’re out!”
“-just the right size to get eaten by a squid or a whale or something, the only reason we don’t is because we stick to the bottom-”
“Get in,” Herrigan muttered, grabbing the loops on the back of Drip’s suit and hoisting him into his salvage sub’s hatch with the ease of long practice.
“-unless the fuel cells give out and drop us straight to the bottom-”
He swung the door shut with an irritated grunt and dogged the hatch shut. A smattering of applause erupted from the handful of other Waldo operators hustling to get in their subs before the launch bay flooded. Herrigan stepped away from Drip’s Waldo and sketched a half-bow. “Gentlemen, I give you silence! Treasure it while you may.”
A quick check of the door seal on the next Waldo over confirmed it was still intact. As Herrigan did so Doug Riggs jogged over to help him in. As he did he jerked his head towards Drip’s sub. “He’s your partner on normal salvage runs, isn’t he? Is he like that all the time?”
“Just when he’s awake and not eating,” Herrigan muttered. Doug and Drip worked different shifts so it wasn’t surprising that Doug didn’t know him that well. “Sometimes he breathes in. I think.”
“Ever considered just gagging him so he won’t drive you nuts?”
Herrigan hesitated, his hand resting on the edge of the hatch. “It’s good luck.”
“What?” Doug’s tone implied that Herrigan might have already gone around the bend.
“It’s like a reverse jinx. You know how you say something bad is going to happen, and then the universe one-ups you?” Doug nodded. “With Drip around he keeps upping the ante so fast the universe can’t find time to actually hit us with anything.”
Doug gave him an unbelieving look. Herrigan shrugged. “At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.”
Duffy raked his fingers through his hair and stared at the balance sheets on his screen.
“Problems?” Gwen asked, leaning back in her chair to catch a glimpse of what was on his monitor.
“Bankruptcy, mostly,” Duffy said with a sigh. “I should have gotten a McClain hull last time in dock.”
“Don’t beat yourself up, boss,” Gwen said with an encouraging smile. “You wanted to pay the crew like you promised. Most people consider that a good thing.”
He cleared his screen with an exasperated snort. “Except now I’m not going to be able to pay anyone anything, because our scrap haul is sitting on the bottom of the ocean and I’m going to go bankrupt trying to get the hull repaired.”
“Look at it this way,” Gwen said, going back to her own monitor. “Even if you did order a new hull we’d have had to ship out long before it could be built or installed. Erin McClain invented a new building material, not a whole new infrastructure.”
Duffy leaned back in his chair and shrugged. “Maybe. But they say she was halfway there, before she died. I just wish the folks who took over EM Ltd. would show half the vision she did and actually get to developing something new.”
“Yeah, well, before you go writing out a letter of protest or something, how about we focus on getting this Erin home in one piece?” Graham said.
Duffy kicked back up in his chair. “What’s gone wrong with my ship now?”
“So far, nothing,” Duffy said. “But we’re under all kinds of stress. I didn’t think of it before, but with the salvage bays and launch bay empty, the most buoyant parts of the ship are the prow and stern. The heaviest part is the flooded compartments-”
“-amidships.” Gwen finished. “It’s like hanging a heavy washer on a string of wire.”
“Except we’re a lot more brittle than wire,” Graham added. “So before we bend too far we’re just going to snap like a twig.”
“You’ve been talking about my ship breaking in half an awful lot today, Graham.”
“Consequence of Eddie‘s design, Captain,” he said with a shrug. “If she were round it’d be like crushing an egg.”
“How do we fix this?” Duffy asked. “Could we just stand the ship on one end, or something?”
“I’m not sure trying that wouldn’t be what does us in,” Graham said slowly. “But I’ll run the numbers.”
“Forgive me if I’m being dense,” Gwen interjected. “But when you’ve got a heavy washer on a wire and you don’t want it dangling about, and you can’t take it off, you hold it up with your hand.”
“So, the Waldos are just floating around outside. How about we have them give us a lift?” She pushed up with her palms to show what she meant.
Duffy and Graham looked at her, and then at each other.
“You want us to what?” Herrigan stared at the sub hull through his window, as if staring at the Erin’s Dream long enough would somehow inform her XO of just how crazy he thought she was.
“Give us a boost,” Gwen said, speaking slowly as if to a small child. “The center of the ship isn’t as buoyant as the ends and we’re hurting for it. We need a couple of Waldos to try and grab us amidships and give a nice, gentle push. ”
“Okay…” Doubt was clear in Herrigan’s tone. “How much thrust do you want from us?”
“We’ll work that out once you’re in position. Just start slow.”
“Right,” Herrigan muttered. Then he switched the intercom over to the circuit which would let him talk to the other salvage subs. “You get all that boys?”
“We heard, Harry,” Doug said. “Who do you want to do this? It’s gonna be tricky to pull without tangling our cables.”
“I know it,” Herrigan said, chewing his lip. Waldo salvage subs usually worked in teams of two, connected to their mothership in sequence by cables that served both as safeties against malfunctions and the primary means of communication.
By longstanding tradition Trenchmen subs had done their best to avoid notice by the patrols of surface nations, so radio was something of a taboo outside the deepest parts of the Marianas Trench. Disconnecting the cables would make it impossible to talk to each other. But, while paired Waldos could simply crank in the excess cable between them to avoid getting tangled while performing work in close proximity, with a third Waldo in the mix there was suddenly a major chance of one of the subs getting tangled and breaking something important.
Herrigan sighed. He’d just have to have the three best pilots do the work. “Okay, Doug. I want you to take Fred and Pam and hang off Eddie’s bow. Drip, Tank and I will do the lift.”
Four acknowledgements came back. Herrigan waited for a moment, then keyed his intercom again. “Drip? You get that?”
There was a long pause, long enough that Herrigan was starting to feel very nervous, then a tentative, “Yeah,” came over the speaker. “Yeah, Harry.. I, uh.. I hear you.”
“Drip?” Herrigan gently spun his sub so he could see Drip’s Waldo hanging quietly in the dark water a few hundred feet away. “You okay, buddy?”
“Yeah, fine,” Drip said. Any idiot could tell he was anything but. “It’s just… we’re not on the bottom. You know?”
“The bottom?” Herrigan scrunched up his eyebrows. “What…?” Somewhere in the back of his mind Herrigan remembered something his cousin, a lawman back in the colony, had mentioned. Occasionally people who went out into the ocean got nervous or downright terrified at the idea of that much open space around them. When they got back inside the colony walls some of them would even panic if they wandered onto one of the large concourses the newer sections were built around, throwing fits or rushing into corridors with no regard for who got in the way. Usually Sam wound up running interference for them, assessing a fines as needed and suggesting they stay out of large rooms.
But if a person snapped in the open ocean it could be a lot worse, particularly back in the day when the water around the original penal colony had been mined.
Drip had never shown any signs of panic before, but then they’d always been along the bottom, with Erin’s Dream hovering just a couple of hundred feet overhead and a wrecked ship close at hand. It may have been enough of an enclosure that he hadn’t ever felt nervous before. “Okay, Drip, just relax. We’re going to tuck up to Eddie’s belly and everything’s going t o be just fine. We’ll get up to the surface in no time.”
“Right… surface… that’ll be…”
“Drip?” A little voice in the back of his head pointed out that maybe, just maybe, mentioning the surface of the ocean, which was little more than a thin layer of air between water and space, might not have been the brightest idea. “Come on, man, let’s get up-”
Herrigan cut off with an oath as the nose of Drip’s Waldo suddenly swung downwards and the sub shot off towards the ocean floor leaving a small trail of bubbles in its wake.
“What happened?” Gwen demanded over the intercom.
“Drip just did a Nemo,” Herrigan said, triggering the pumps on his forward ballast tanks. “New plan. Doug, Pam, Tank, push Eddie up to the surface. Fred, spot for ’em.”
“Harry, we’re already far enough from the bottom that we’re not going to have enough cable to reach back down there,” Gwen said. “You need to catch him before he hit’s the end of the line.”
“And do what?”
“Well I thought you would have something in mind for that already.”
There was a muttering on the other end of the line, then the captain’s voice came over the intercom. “Cartwright, if you don’t have any idea how to get Randolph to come to the surface just cut his cable and stay with us. There’s no sense both of you-”
“I think I’m going to need to detach from Erin’s Dream and run on battery power for a while, captain,” Herrigan said pleasantly. “Sorry if you were saying something, you know how that interferes with the comms.”
“Herrigan Cartwright, I swear, if I go to jail just-” The connection with Erin’s Dream cut out with an abrupt snap. Herrigan absently switched the intercom off to save power and switched on his screws. His Waldo was already descending slowly, but odds were Drip was already on the ocean floor. He’d been descending so fast there was a good chance his sub had collided with the bottom, but Waldos were pretty tough and hopefully nothing critical would be damaged.
The entire forward part of Herrigan’s Waldo was a single, convex piece of clear plastic, created using engineering principles that Erin McClain had adapted from mollusks. Unlike Erin’s Dream herself, it was almost state of the art. The huge window usually helped the pilots see everything that was going on during salvage jobs, a handy feature when you were up to your mechanical elbows in old, unstable shipwrecks. In this case, it also gave Herrigan a great view of the ocean around him.
With most of his own running lights off, to make it easier to spot the lights on Drip’s Waldo, Herrigan quickly understood why people might find the open ocean unsettling. The dark water was somehow both oppressive and vast at the same time, as if the deeps were somehow an endless maze and a coming avalanche all rolled into one.
Herrigan frowned and smacked himself on the leg. No good thinking like that, or he’d never manage to find Drip. With a keen eye on his instruments, he carefully navigated the sub down into the depths, following the cable that would lead him to his missing friend.
Forty two minutes after the first alarm sounded the Erin’s Dream broke the surface of the ocean somewhere off the northeastern shore of Australia. There was a tentative thump from the top hatch, then Duffy stuck his head out and sniffed the air tentatively. From behind him, Graham called, “Everything look okay?”
“Yeah.” Duffy pushed the hatch aside and climbed up onto the narrow top deck. “I was just expecting it to be brighter, that’s all.”
Graham pulled himself up and out of the hatch as well, giving the sky a hard look. “It’s weather. The water vapor can’t condense along the outer hull and be channeled back into a reservoir, so instead large formations called clouds-”
“Yes, I’ve heard of the phenomenon,” Duffy said, peering out across the water rather than up at the sky. “Do you see any sign of Cartwright or Randolph?”
“No,” Graham admitted, looking in the other direction, “but I wouldn’t worry. There’s no one better qualified to drag Drip off the ocean floor than Herrigan.”
Graham gave his captain an amused look. “You’ve never talked to him, have you? James Randolph almost never stops whining. It would keep leaking out of him even if you used a gag.”
“A constant drip, drip, drip,” Duffy said, nodding. “That sounds like Cartwright. Come on, let’s have a look at this hull leak.”
Ten minutes later Graham was shaking his head. “I think we could make a reasonably solid patch for this if we had more material to work with. But we dumped all the scrap we’d collected to make ourselves more buoyant, and I’m not sure I would have trusted it at Trench depth anyways. Maybe if we pulled something off the interior walls of the flooded compartments…”
“Well, think about it but don’t take too long. I don’t want to be on the surface any longer than we have to, no matter how much we’re making history by being here.” Duffy stood half way up, then stopped and peered intently at the water. “On the bright side, maybe when we get home Sam Cartwright won’t throw me in jail on suspicion of murdering my business partner after all.”
Graham followed his line of sight and whistled. “What is that?”
It turned out that it was two Waldo submarines. A large piece of scrap metal had been bent into a collar around the forward viewport of one minisub, so that only a few feet of it were unobstructed. The other submarine clung close by, holding the collar in place with one of it’s manipulator arms. In a few minutes the Waldos were alongside their mothership and Herrigan popped the hatch on his.
“Let’s get some relief pilots out here,” he called. “We need to stow these Waldos, and we can’t do that while I’m holding the blinders in place for Drip. Call Tank or Pam up here and they can bring it in.”
Duffy gave the order and then looked back to Herrigan and shook his head. “Leave it to you to find some way to get a little salvage out of a job as bad as this.”
“Just trying to keep the casualties down,” he said with a shrug. “On the bright side, our scrap load look like it’s still mostly in one place. We could send some Waldos down and collect some of it before the currents scatter it too badly.”
Duffy shook his head. “I don’t know. You’d have to run without a connection back to Eddie.”
“That’s why they’ve got fuel cells on board,” Herrigan said. “Eight hours of run time without needing to recharge. More than enough time to make a couple of trips back and forth.”
“What are we supposed to do with all this scrap you’re bringing back? Eat it?” Graham asked.
“Well I was thinking we could sell it to help cover repair costs.”
“Sell it to who?” Duffy demanded. “We’re thousands of miles from the nearest scrap metal dealer.”
“Not true,” Herrigan countered. “Australia’s only a few hundred miles away.”
“What?!” Duffy and Graham asked in unison.
Herrigan sighed. “Look, I know we’re used to avoiding notice by people on the surface. But think about it. It’s been seventy years since we last heard from the surface at all, and the Marianas Trench Penal Colony wasn’t a widely publicized venture, or so we’re told. A lot of people probably never heard of us or forgot about us. And if they do remember us, the Australia started as a penal colony too, so they’re more likely to be sympathetic.”
“And we know that people from Alcatraz are not the only ones doing deep sea salvage,” Duffy mused.
“It’s an untapped market for us. And we’ve already broken one unwritten rule by surfacing, we might as well go all the way and make contact with someone, don’t you think?” Herrigan shrugged. “If anything, it can’t be more dangerous than drying to drop back to Trench depth with a cut rate patch on my ship.”
“Hey, don’t forget half of it is my ship,” Duffy snapped.
“Right. It’s just something to think about.”
“Really?” Graham asked, incredulous. “Because it sounds like borderline treason to me. Have you forgotten that we’re basically prisoners of the UN? That we’re not even supposed to be on the surface less we cause some sort of global environmental catastrophe? The people up here are insane! The surface is more of a prison for us than the Trench! At least there we can come and go without worrying about being sunk without warning by any navy that decides they have some ordinance to burn through.”
Herrigan laughed. “Kid, prison and opportunity are the exact same thing, just so long as you know how to look. Think about it, Duffy.”
With that he pulled the hatch on his sub closed. Pam was settling herself into Drip’s Waldo while Doug and Tank led their fellow pilot back towards the larger sub’s hatch. Herrigan’s sub was already beginning to dip beneath the waves again.
Graham shook his head. “I know you two are friends and my bosses, but I have to wonder why you work with a guy as crazy as he is.”
“Because he gives me things to think about.” For a long moment Duffy just stared towards the horizon, where the sea met the sky. It was something he had never seen before in his life. Suddenly he turned to Graham with a manic grin and said, “I’ve always wanted to visit Australia.”
With that, he headed back towards the hatch, Graham following mournfully in his wake.