The hull of Erin’s Dream groaned as the tired salvage sub sank down below the edge of the Marianas Trench. Lauren Cochran watched as the ship’s salvage commander, Herrigan Cartwright, wiped the condensation off the shoulder of his bright yellow jacket and threw it on the floor. It was a practiced, unconscious movement, one she’d realized was something between a dismissal and a curse. Barely two feet to his right the ship’s XO, Gwen Bolton, mimicked the gesture. Apparently the ship’s crew didn’t like the noise any better than she did. Lauren knew Erin’s Dream had suffered a hull breach before making port in New Darwin but the repairs had all been cleared by safety inspectors before it headed out to sea again.
Of course none of those inspectors had been told its final destination was a half forgotten prison colony built near the bottom of the deepest chasm in the world.
With eight people crammed into a space that couldn’t be more than twelve by twelve, plus the control consoles and station chairs, the bridge was cramped and tense. Given the distant attitude the crew had shown them so far she wasn’t sure why the small Australian delegation had been invited to watch the ship make port at Stalag, the Third Ward of a prison colony turned self governing state calling itself Alcatraz. For that matter, she wasn’t entirely sure why she had been sent with the delegation at all. She was an assistant harbormaster, not a diplomat. Her only qualification was the amount of time she’d spent around the crew since they got into port and even on that count she was sure Ambassador Sudbury had her beat. He’d spent a lot of time with the ship’s owners during the weeks it was laid up for repairs.
“All engines stopped,” the XO announced. “How’s her back, Graham?”
“Hull looks fine,” Gwen’s brother replied from the ops station, “but give her a second to get her feet under her. It’s been a while since Eddie was this deep.”
Herrigan pulled a headset out from under his console and put it on. “I’ll call in and let the lockmaster know we’re coming.”
“Lockmaster?” Sudbury asked.
Captain Duffy leaned back from his work station to give the ambassador his full attention. “He’s somewhere between a harbor master and an engineer in charge of keeping the sea locks in working order so subs can get in and out of the Ward.”
“Did you rename everything in your society?” The grumpy man asking was the Sergeant in charge of the small Australian army detachment – really just two people – sent along to keep Lauren and the Ambassador safe. Most people seemed content to attribute his generally surly attitude to the fact that he felt dangerously understaffed for his responsibilities.
“We didn’t rename anything. We just didn’t feel any need to borrow from existing surface societies when inventing entirely new things.” Herrigan was the one exception to the spirit of good will Lauren had noticed, perhaps because he was kind of the opposite of Sergeant Hathoway. Both men had spent a fair portion of the trip watching each other suspiciously and not talking much. He was friendly enough with the rest of the delegation but something about Hathoway seemed to rub him the wrong way.
“What happened to calling in?” Gwen muttered.
Ambassador Sudbury stepped in to break up the tension. “I thought your subs maintained radio silence as a way to stay hidden.”
“Once we’re in the trench we have relays that let us talk to Alcatraz without risk of detection,” the captain said. “Without real time contact we’d have a hard time navigating the hazards between us and home.”
Lauren suppressed a shudder. “What kind of hazards do you have down this deep? Predators?”
Gwen laughed at that. “Nothing big enough to hurt Eddie, even with the bad shape she’s in. There isn’t enough for something that big to eat, assuming we weren’t past it’s crush depth. We have smaller fish, crustaceans and jellyfish running around but nothing like monster sharks or kraken or stuff like that. Most of the dangerous stuff comes from us.”
“What kind of trash do you leave laying around down here?” Lauren asked. “I thought Alcatraz sent out salvage subs because it couldn’t afford to leave stuff lying around.”
“It’s not trash,” Herrigan said. “It’s other things.”
Before Hathoway could ask what he meant Herrigan keyed his headset and said, “Hello, Alcatraz control. This is the Erin’s Dream, requesting an approach lane and permission to dock from Third Ward’s lockmaster.”
“I told you your cousin would be fine.” Randal hopped down stairs two at a time trying to keep up with Sam as his friend clattered down towards the lock levels at full tilt.
“I wasn’t worried about him. Herrigan’s tough as nails. But Aunt Martha practically went gray this month and the family’s been hopping trying to keep her spirits up. He shouldn’t be worrying his mother like that.” Sam shot Randal a look over his shoulder. “This is personal business, Chief. Don’t you have other things to be doing? Like getting a campaign in order?”
Randal chuffed a laugh out in between deep breaths, trying not to show how much the pace was taking out of him. “I’ve spent four and a half years of my life as the Third Ward chief executive, that’s long enough thank you. Not sure why I wanted to be a politician in a colony full of stubborn political prisoners, it’s worse than wrangling cats.”
“You’ve never seen a cat before. We don’t have them here. How would you know?” Sam was sounding a bit winded himself, although at nearly ten years Randal’s senior he had a decent excuse.
“I’ll concede the point if you’ll quit trying to talk me into running for office again.” After six flights of stairs, going down or not, both men were glad to reach the door that let them in to the control room that overlooked the main sealock control center. Half a dozen faces swivled to look at the two with curious expressions. Randal grinned. “Quarterly inspection, folks. We’re here to make sure you’re parking the boats right.”
The lockmaster grunted and went back to his console. “Interested in one boat in particular, I’ll bet.” He waved absently towards one of the other technicians. “I think Frank’s on the line with Erin’s Dream right now.”
As the two men approached Frank’s station he hit a key on his control screen that switched his audio from his headset to speakers. “-coming in for final approach and requesting docking instructions.”
Herrigan’s voice came over the speaker and Randal saw Sam smile out of the corner of his eye. In spite of what he said Randal knew the Cartwrights were a close family and had been worried as Harry’s ship got more and more overdue. “Eddie’s two months overdue, Cartwright,” Frank said, pulling up the current docking assignments on his screen. “Her usual berth’s taken. Get your ship in sooner if you want her resting easy, I’ll have to see what I can scrounge for you. Guess you got a full hold of scrap after all that time out there, at least.”
There line was quiet for nearly a minute, long enough for Sam and Randal to exchange curious looks, before Herrigan’s voice came back. “Some scrap, control. Also, perishables.”
The sealock controller sat back in his seat and scratches at his head. “Perishables? Did you find an intact medical shipment or something?”
“No. It’s foodstuffs. Mostly vegetables. A few head of livestock. And four passengers.”
Sam leaned forward and cleared the docking assignments from Frank’s screen, leaving him looking at the sonar profile for Erin’s Dream, as if that would give him some kind of insight into what was going on. “Where did he pick up that kind of stuff?”
Frank’s thoughts must have been running along the same line because he said, “How did any of that stuff survive salvage depth? It’s well past crush depth for any of it.”
“We picked it up in Australia. Long story. Look, the four passengers are a diplomatic envoy from Canberra and they want taken to our leaders or something. Have the lockmaster call the Chief Executive up and let him know what’s going on then find us somewhere to park and order a repair crew. Eddie needs her hull looked at.”
Frank switched off his headset and gave Randal a questioning look. Randal looked around and realized that everyone else in the room was mirroring it. A huge mess had just landed in his lap. There weren’t rules for receiving diplomats, no one had ever really anticipated it being a necessity. He wasn’t even sure the other Chiefs would be able to agree on a way to deal with foreign negotiations, they had a hard enough time agreeing amongst themselves. And given that everyone in the room had just heard that contact with the surface had been reestablished keeping that little fact under wraps was now a pipe dream. For a moment Randal stood stock still, trying to juggle variables and figure out what they should do next.
Naturally, the first thing he asked was, “Think they brought any cats with that livestock?”