Code Red (Part One)

Well here we are just two stories into the summer plans and we’re already off schedule. This story took me all of two and a half days to write so I figured it must be short – but when I went to post it I discovered it was about twice as long as what I would consider ideal post length. Looks like it’s perfect for a two part story!

——–

The position of chief technician on a Trenchman sub was a weird blend of chemical expert, mechanical engineer and botanist with a smattering of really weird expertise thrown in for flavor. They were very smart, very well respected people who the crew listened to as a matter of course, even when they didn’t personally like the technician in question. Captain Oscar Duffy had always gotten on fine with Old Phil, his chief tech, so when Phil called him off the bridge Duffy assumed it was important and made his way down the length of the Erin’s Dream to the rear Oxygen Processing compartment without protest.

“It’s turned red,” Phil said, as if that explained.

“I can see that,” Duffy said. He was, unfortunately, unenlightened by his chief tech’s explanation. “Unfortunately we’re not going to have a replacement on hand any time soon. The salvage bays are going to be mostly empty on our return run, though. Could we just load some extra air in tanks and use that to get us home? We could run part of the way on the surface.”

Old Phil gave him a disbelieving look. “You don’t know what this means, do you?”

“Assume I’m not entirely current on the nuance of every system on this ship.”

“Fine.” He rapped his knuckles sharply on the bulkhead just a foot from where the two men were standing. “You know what’s on the other side of this?”

“Oh.” Duffy felt himself turning pale. “That’s bad.”

“Yes, Captain, it certainly is. The pressure hull isn’t the only thing that’ll need fixing when we get to port.”

——–

Lauren Cochran looked up when Vern walked, or rather shuffled, into the assistant harbor master’s office. He wasn’t the type to intrude without cause, in fact he wasn’t the type to do anything at all to draw attention, so there was really only one possibility if he was crossing her threshold of his own volition. “Something the matter, Vern?”

Vern cleared his throat twice, an annoying but predictable sign of nervousness, and said, “Yes, ma’am. You know we’ve got a sub in port right now?”

“New Darwin’s always had a little Navy presence, Vern,” she said, fingers absently skimming over touchscreens as she tried to bring up the current listing of Royal Australian Navy ships in port. Was there an attack sub at dock just then? “Are they causing problems?”

“Not that I know of.” He fidgeted for a second. “Actually, I’m talking about a civilian sub?”

Flicked fingers sent the military berths away and she started flipping through the larger public listings. “A research sub or a salvage vehicle?”

“The latter.” He handed her the tablet he was holding and said, “The dock inspector found something you should see.”

Lauren grimaced as she took the tablet. It was clammy and sweaty and she did her best to surreptitiously wipe her hands dry as she woke up the device. “You could have just copied me the memory stick, you know.”

Vern shook his head vigorously. “You don’t want this running around the wifi, Lauren. Trust me.”

Erin’s Dream, huh,” she muttered, thumbing through the screens of data. She stopped when she reached the fourth. “Does the harbormaster know about this?”

“Not yet.” Vern looked down at his hands as if ashamed of the fact. “He was in a meeting with the deputy mayor when we noticed. He should be back in half an hour but…”

“You didn’t want this in the datastream. Okay, you made a good call.” She pushed herself up and out from behind her desk. “Have him meet me at Pier 42 as soon as he can.”

“Do you want security there?” Vern asked tentatively. “Or the police?”

“If it was going to be anyone I’d have the military there. But there’s still a chance this is a misunderstanding.”

“You think so?” Vern asked hopefully.

Lauren sighed. “No. Not really.”

——–

The cramped surface deck of Erin’s Dream was cluttered with equipment, parts and crew. With the sub at dock there wasn’t much call for the Waldos so Herrigan found himself doing his best to keep order among the chaos. “No, not the welding equipment. What if Graham needs that to patch the hull? Put it aft with the other stuff going back down into engineering storage.” He scowled around at the rest of the junk on the deck. He’d thought nothing could be as tough as keeping an underwater salvage op from tangling in it’s own power and communication cables but he didn’t even know what half this stuff was, much less whether they’d need it below decks in the next few weeks. “Keep the spare parts for the Waldos and Eddie separate. I don’t want to try seeing if a Waldo battery is compatible with our power supply system, you hear me? Don’t get them mixed up!”

“Hey, Harry?” Herrigan looked down from his vantage up on the conning tower to spot Tank, one of his salvage sub drivers, down on the main deck by the gangplank, waving for his attention. “Harry, some guys here to see you. One of ’em says he’s the harbormaster.”

“Coming!” He rattled down from the conning tower muttering curses. He’d chosen his salvage pilots for experience, since bad salvage pilots were almost entirely weeded out by their first two jobs. If you survived that long you were good. That was the way the job went. But that kind of competence didn’t always come with good manners, something people like harbormasters tended to appreciate.

It was pretty easy to tell with a glance which one the harbormaster was and, just as Herrigan had feared, he didn’t look happy at Tank’s offhand way of referred to him. The kind of man who came out to look at a salvage sub in a three piece suit most likely expected to be addressed with respect, too. There were maybe half a dozen people with the harbormaster too, a pretty large group just to pay a visit to a lowly salvage sub. To say nothing of how unusual a personal visit from the harbormaster was, period.

For the second time that month Herrigan was hearing damage control alarms. Problem was, this time they were entirely in his own mind and he wasn’t sure what kind of damage he was dealing with.

“Hi, I’m Herrigan Cartwright,” he said, holding out a hand to the harbormaster. “Welcome aboard the Erin’s Dream.”

“A pleasure, Mr. Cartwright,” the harbormaster said, giving the offered hand a quick shake, his tone making it clear they were just words. “This is a fine looking ship you have.”

Eddie’s got it where it counts…” Herrigan racked his brains quickly and, just as he was about to skip it remembered the name he’d heard during the ship’s initial inspection. “Mr. Bainbridge. What can I do for you today? Or are you perhaps a connoisseur of submersibles? Ours is a pretty unusual model.”

Bainbridge’s expression sharpened momentarily. “It is at that. We weren’t able to find anything like it in our records.”

Which was because Erin’s Dream had been build in Purgatory Ward’s shipyards at the bottom of the Marianas Trench, something the Australians weren’t supposed to know existed. Herrigan mentally kicked himself for that slip up, comparing submarine design and customization was a typical middle class topic of conversation for Trenchmen but he couldn’t expect others to share it. “She was a custom job, actually,” he answered, hoping it didn’t come off as lame as it sounded. “Would you like a tour?”

“Actually, I would. In a manner of speaking.” Bainbridge gestured behind him to a tall, careworn woman with gray streaks beginning to work through her black hair. “This is the assistant harbormaster, Lauren Cochran. We’ve come down here because there were some discrepancies in your registration we’d like to sort out. The two of us would like to take a look through your vessel if you don’t mind, Captain Cartwright.”

He flicked his gaze from the harbormaster to his assistant and back again. Best to buy time to work out a clearer picture of what was going on. “Actually, I’m not the captain. He’s below decks with our XO, getting a feel for some repairs that need doing.”

“You’re not the captain or the fist mate?” Lauren asked. “Then why did they call you over?”

“Because I am part owner. Captain Duffy and I each own half shares in the ship. So far as business decisions go I’m just as capable of making them as he is.” Herrigan offered her a casual shrug. “Tank must have figured this was about some of the repair supplies we’d requested.”

“Well, ‘Tank’ was close but not quite correct.” The harbormaster held up a flat device about the size of a notepad. “Our visit is related to the salvage you’re offering for sale. I notice you haven’t visited New Darwin before, so you might not be aware of some of the rules we have governing what kind of salvage we can and can’t take. We’ll need to inspect it, and do a second inspection of your vessel for possible illicit salvage.”

“Illicit salvage? That some kind of joke?” A glance between the two officials faces convinced him that no, it wasn’t. Herrigan sighed and waved to get Tank’s attention again. “Ring down to the galley and get Duffy up here, will you?”

“The galley?” Lauren asked.

“Yeah, like I said we’re doing some repairs down there. It’s a long story. I’d take you there but the place isn’t in any shape for company.”

“This is an inspection, Mr. Cartwright.” Bainbridge crossed his arms over his chest. “We’ll need to see all sections of the ship eventually.”

“All right,” Herrigan said, keeping a firm grip on his building annoyance. “We’ll go meet Duffy there. Then, since I’m sure we’re all busy people, I’ll take Mrs. Cochran to inspect our salvage holds and Duffy can give you the grand tour. Sound good?”

“Splendid,” Bainbridge replied. “Lead on.”

——–

The crew of Erin’s Dream was almost as strange as the ship itself. Almost everyone they passed in the corridors was wearing the same kind of slick, plastic shelled jacket that Herrrigan wore. Lauren hadn’t seen that many people on deck wearing them but that may just have been to keep cool. It quickly became apparent why they wore the jackets, temperatures belowdecks weren’t that bad but the humidity bordered on stifling. The jackets collected condensation and wicked it down to the floor quickly. She couldn’t tell what happened to the moisture after that, there certainly weren’t any puddles visible leading her to assume some kind of drainage system was at work.

The humidity was probably the driving force behind the almost total lack of hair on all of the men she’d seen. Most had just shaved their heads bald but some, like Herrigan, had enough fuzz on the top of their heads to be confused for a peach. The one woman she’d seen so far, the XO by all accounts, wore her hair short enough to be mistaken for a man most other places.

That might make things seem drab except the crew all seemed intent on wearing the brightest colors possible. Herrigan and at least half the crew had chosen a bright canary yellow for their waterproof jackets, most of the rest were an equally bright shade of blue. As nearly as Lauren could tell, the color didn’t correspond to job description in any way. While clothes tended to be loose cut and shapeless the crew seemed to favor crazy patterns on the fabric and, when mixed with tools sticking out of pockets,  bandanas on heads or broad leather belts, the whole crew had a vaguely piratical air.

Even Captain Duffy, who out of the whole crew wore the only gray waterproof jacket she’d seen and wore a button down shirt, accessorized with a bolo tie and iron gray hoop earrings.

Herrigan’s black trimmed, yellow clothes would have made him unremarkable in comparison to the rest of the crew except for the fact that he was armed.

Lauren caught sight of the weapons as he cranked open the pressure door leading into what he called the salvage bay. On the side of his belt he wore what looked like an ionizer with an unfamiliar control scheme. A knife handle stuck out from behind his back. She couldn’t tell more because as soon as she realized what they were he was pushing the door open and his jacket fell to cover them again.

“Tell me, Mrs. Cochran, what exactly is illicit salvage?” He asked, ushering her into a comparatively large compartment that, for all it’s size, was nearly crammed full with a set of six minisubs painted the bright sky blue she was starting to suspect was the signature color of Erin’s Dream.

Lauren cleared her throat, suddenly a little nervous. Herrigan Cartwright didn’t strike her as a particularly dangerous man, with no hair on his head his ears seemed comically prominent and the rest of him was a bit too gangly and awkward to be really threatening. If anything he looked kind of like a forty year old man who’d never outgrown his teenaged gawkiness. But an armed man was an armed man, and he might not like what he was about to hear.

“Australia has a law against salvaging any vessel that’s been on the ocean floor less than five years. Ships that do so can be barred from our ports and scrap companies that purchase such salvage can be fined.”

Herrigan’s brow furrowed. “Really? How can you tell? It’s not like they’re dated when you find them on the ocean floor, after all.”

“We have a process for that,” Lauren said, waving the tablet she’d brought with her and hoping Herrigan didn’t want any details she didn’t have. “It won’t take more than an hour to run the inspection, depending on how much scrap you have.”

“We only got the front hold half full before we had the mishap that brought us here,” Herrigan said, waving to their left. “There’s nothing in the aft hold right now, although you can have a look there if you want.”

“We can do that after.” He didn’t seem interested in what the tablet was supposed to be doing in all this and that was a relief. “Lead on.”

“You got it.” He threaded his way between the minisubs and the wall of the bay, taking a moment to stop and examine the manipulator arms on the vehicle as he went past. They passed a total of three minisubs and Herrigan stopped to look at each one.

“Can I ask what exactly it is you do?” Lauren said as he straightened up from inspecting the arms on the third sub. “You said you’re part owner of the ship but if that was all you are I think you’d be back at home, letting the crew do the earning for you.”

Herrigan laughed. “I’m not sure a crew like this would work for a guy like that. Still, since you asked, I’m the salvage team commander when we’re working on a wreck. The rest of the time I’m the deputy and assistant – well, chief cook now, I guess.” Lauren’s face twitched towards a scowl before she could catch herself and Herrigan caught it. “The food’s not that bad, honest.”

“I’m sure it’s not,” she said, absently rubbing at her wrist. “Deputy, you say? Are you a union man or something?”

“Or something,” he agreed, nodding vaguely. “But mostly, I cook.”

“I just don’t like the idea.”

“Of cooking?”

“Salvage.”

“Oh.” He was quiet for a moment as the finished crossing the bay. As he cranked the next pressure door open he asked, “Any particular reason?”

She mulled over what to tell him as he swung the door open and ushered her into the next compartment. The lights clicked on as he stepped in behind her. Finally, Lauren said, “My husband died at sea. I wasn’t… I didn’t really think anything about salvage before. But after… I have a hard time with the idea of total strangers pulling his ship apart around his body.”

Herrigan was quiet for a few minutes, leaving her with her thoughts and the sight of a dozen or so racks of neatly cut hull plates, crates of more complex parts like pumps or electrical boxes and who knew what else. Finally she gathered herself together and brought her tablet to life, pulled up the utility she needed and went to work.

“Ever heard of Erin McClain?” Herrigan asked after she’d been engrossed in looking over the salvage for a minute or two.

“No.” Lauren glanced up from her tablet. “Did she design this ship?”

“Not exactly, although it is named after her. She died a good five or six years before it was built.” Herrigan offered a casual shrug. “Kind of well known in shipbuilding circles. She was a big advocate of recycling. Said reusing what others left us furthered their legacy, rather than harming it. When Eddie was built I guess the christeners thought a salvage ship ought to be named after someone like that.”

“A nice sentiment, anyway.” Lauren went back to the salvage and tried not to think about where it came from or who it might have once belonged to. Or, for that matter, whether it was radioactive.

——–

“This is spare parts storage but most of that is up on deck right now. You’d be amazed how that kind of thing gets jumbled up over the years.” Duffy forced a smile. “Finding the patches and equipment to fix the hull breach you saw in the galley gave us a good excuse to sort it.”

“I was amazed to see a part of your ship look so… empty,” Bainbridge agreed, a hint of condescension in his voice.

“It’s a salvage sub,” Gwen said, ice in her voice colder than the Trench itself. “Space is at a premium.”

“Of course.” Bainbridge peered around at the empty shelves for a moment, boredom evident on his face. “Forgive me, Captain Duffy, but I’m beginning to suspect that this whole visit is a waste of everyone’s time. Maybe-”

“Captain?” Young Phil’s head poked through the pressure door at the other end of the compartment.

Duffy resisted the urge to try and shoo him away, after twenty minutes of the ship’s most boring features they’d almost gotten rid of the harbormaster. But shooing the young tech away now would look bad. “Yes, Phil?”

“Gramps wants you down in aft oxygen processing.” Old Phil and Young Phil were actually related, grandfather and grandson, and they had certain qualities in common. A tendency to ignore anyone that didn’t strike them as important was one of them and, given the fact that he didn’t even glance at Gwen or the harbormaster meant that whatever Old Phil wanted it was strictly Captain’s Business.

“I’m sorry, if you’d excuse me for a minute, my-”

“Captain, in case you’ve forgotten this is a total inspection,” Bainbridge said, immediately attentive. “We’ve started, we may as well finish. Let’s have a look at this oxygen processing compartment, shall we?”

“If you insist,” Duffy said, hiding a smile.  This might be to his advantage after all. It looked like the snappily dressed harbormaster just needed one more push to get him off the boat and oxygen processing would do nicely. “Right this way, gentleman.”

Their destination was several compartments aft and one deck down, requiring a little backtracking and a lot of edging past damp, sweaty crew. Once, when Graham came by leading a pair of crewmen carrying bags full of spoiled food from the ruined galley, he thought the harbormaster was about to bolt. But Bainbridge sucked in his stomach, smoothed down the front of his snazzy suit and let the three men by. A few moments later Duffy cranked open the pressure door into oxygen processing and let the harbormaster and his two men in first, sharing a smile with Gwen behind their backs.

“What is this?” Bainbridge exclaimed a moment later, a hand going over his mouth and nose in a vain attempt to combat the smell of compost and seawater. “Captain Duffy, why do you have a compartment full of seaweed?”

“It’s oxygen processing,” the Phils said in unison. The younger finished the thought, pushing into the compartment and trotting over to his grandfather. “We pump air through here and the seaweed breaks down the carbon dioxide into breathable oxygen and emergency food staples.”

Bainbridge looked around at the room in horror. The compartment was actually just a couple of narrow pathways through floor to ceiling water tanks crammed full of fernlike seaweed and clinging pillows of algae. “And this actually provides you with enough oxygen?”

“Well, this and the other two similar compartments throughout the ship handle about two thirds of our needs under normal circumstances,” Duffy said, pulling the pressure door closed behind him.

“Or they would if we could get that leak fixed,” Old Phil said, pulling an unhealthy reddish plant out of one of the tanks and tossing it into a bucket by his feet. Dozens of other dying plants already filled it to overflowing. “Captain if this keeps up we’re not going to be able to count on this compartment for more than half it’s usual output. The plants are dying off and it’ll take weeks, maybe months, for new splittings from the other compartments to get up to full size.”

“So we’ll take on some tanks of oxygen along with the other supplies. We’re already bankrupting ourselves on this run anyways.” Duffy shook his head ruefully. “We can handle running a little heavy in O2 reserves if we-”

A pinging noise from one of Bainbridge’s two men cut him off. The lackey, a big, tattooed guy with enough gut to suggest he spent more time in paperwork than honest work, pulled out one of the tablet computer gizmos that most of the dock workers seemed to carry and consulted it for a second. Then he said in alarm, “Harbormaster, this compartment is radioactive!”

“Well what do you think’s killing the seaweed?” Old Phil demanded. “Our reactor hasn’t cooled down enough to apply a patch yet.”

“It’s not dangerous to humans if we avoid long term exposure,” Young Phil added. “The seaweed is only affected because it’s been stuck next to the reactor for a week and a half.”

Bainbridge slowly turned to look at Duffy, sheer horror written across his features. “This ship is powered by a nuclear reactor?”

“Yes?” He hadn’t meant to be snide but Duffy’s answer still came out more like a question. The growing storm of emotions on the harbormaster’s face prompted the captain to add, “Is this going to be a problem?”

“Is it-” Bainbridge actually sputtered for a full five seconds, his men shifting nervously and exchanging glances as they waited for some cue on what to do. “This is an outrage, captain! Your ship will be impounded immediately! And you, Mr. Duffy, if that’s really your name, you will…”

At that point it looked like no more useful information was forthcoming. And really, after threatening to take his ship what more could there be to hear? Duffy looked at Gwen and said, “Tell Cartwright he needs to get up here. Now.”

——–

“Impound the ship?” Herrigan stared at the intercom in disbelief, as if doubting Gwen would somehow change what he was hearing. “Because of a reactor leak?”

“That’s what it sounds like. I – What?” The last bit was indistinct, not said into the pickup on the other end. There was a click and the speaker went dead.

Herrigan sighed and switched his own end of the conversation off. “Come on, Mrs. Cochran. Your boss is pitching a fit about our reactor.”

Lauren came out of the salvage stacks, her face noticeably paler. She could almost pass for a natural Trenchman. “Your what?”

“Our power plant has been leaking radiation since our accident. We’re planning to patch it tomorrow, once things cool a bit more.” Herrigan looked back through the door way as he waited for Lauren to catch up. She seemed oddly reluctant to get any closer. “I’m not irradiated or anything, it’s not a big leak. We can patch it, at least long enough to get it looked at by someone certified.”

“Who are you people?” She asked quietly. “And where are you from?”

“We’re salvagers,” Herrigan said, stepping back into the salvage bay slowly, wondering what he’d said that was wrong. “Our home port is Norfolk.”

“I thought that’s what your paperwork said.” She held her tablet between the two of them like it was a shield. “But no one calls it that anymore. Everyone calls it the Greater Chesapeake Port Authority, they have ever since the docks had to be moved out. And the Living States wouldn’t let a nuclear powered ship use that as home port.”

“The Living States?” The question was out before Herrigan could stop it.

“Who are you?” Laruen demanded, Herrigan’s confusion apparently making her bold.

He pulled in a lungfull of air and sighed. “Okay, fine. Game’s up. I’m Herrigan Cartwright, part owner and salvage commander of Erin’s Dream. And I’m a fully deputized constable of the Third Ward of the Alcatraz Pact, born and raised on the bottom of the Marianas Trench.”

Lauren stared at him in what he took to be an open invitation to continue. “We’ve been down there for almost ninety years, you know. It was a joint project, mostly Brazil and the US – you still got the US?” She nodded mutely. “That may not be good for us, then. Anyway, back then people were trying to combat global warming and decided to round up all the most committed skeptics and exile them some place where their ‘harmful practices’ couldn’t reach the world at large. And I think the sealed biosphere they were stuck in was supposed to help them see the errors of their ways, force them to adopt sustainable living and be less greedy or drive themselves to extinction. I’m not surprised you never heard of it, the project was kept hush-hush. At least to the public, other governments must have heard about it because we wound up getting people from just about everywhere except Australia – probably have your history to thank for that – and many of the later ones weren’t people exiled for views that didn’t match the political climate.”

Herrigan leaned against the doorframe and watched Lauren’s expression. He’d been hoping for a good mix of conflicting emotions – our at least outrage over his bad joke at the end – but all he was really getting was shock. Maybe a final push. “Funny how that worked out, given as how we finally get back up to the surface and, as near as we can tell, you’re stuck in the middle of an ice age with falling sea levels and everything. What caused that?”

Lauren finally looked him in the eye. “Nuclear winter.”

It was his turn to process things, and he took his time doing it. Then summed up his thoughts. “Huh.”

Fiction Index
Part Two
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