Out of Water – Chapter Eleven

In retrospect, hauling Holly Newcastle – Leftenant, Australian Army and visiting dignitary – straight out of her chair and practically tossing her in a corner may not have been the best decisions Randal had ever made. He didn’t recognize either of the other two people she was with, though the new woman was wearing the bright yellow of a Justice deputy, but she was sitting in the middle of the a fairly important control center that she definitely shouldn’t have had access to and that wasn’t something he could just ignore. Randal handed her off to Sam and sat down at the screen she’d been working at.

“Chief?” The woman said tentatively.

“How’s things, Ramon?” Sam said, gently moving Holly to one side over her half formed protests.

Randal waved Walker forward and tapped the display. “She’s tapped into the code, Scott. What is all this?”

“It’s the air pressure and atmospheric composition control programs.” Walker scrolled through the code at a frantic pace. “They’re spliced together somehow but I can’t tell what’s  going on or why.”

“I thought you were an expert,” Randal hissed in annoyance.

“I’m a generalist expert, of sorts,” Walker explained.

“That’s not a real thing.” Sam deadpanned.

Walker laughed. “Point is I don’t know what this is off the top of my head.”

Holly wiggled her way back into the conversation, pushing Sam back a step with a swift kick to the ankles. “I’m trying to  code an algorithm that will up the air pressure in the maintenance access areas around the hull.”

“Why on earth would you want to do that?” Sam asked.

She smoothed her hair back and tossed condensation aside almost as smoothly as a native born Trenchman. After a moment to collect thoughts Holly said, “Harry figured we’re not dealing with a hull breach here. He thought it was a fish out of water.”

“Right.” Randal nodded. “We’d gotten there too.”

“Good. So one of your fish’s main goals is to flood Alcatraz, right?” She leaned in under Walker’s shoulder and quickly edged him out and back away from the console. As she leaned in closer to Randal he decided to vacate the chair for her before she got any pushier. And it did sound like she’d been put on whatever mad science thing she was doing for Herrigan, which meant if anyone would be getting hard questions it should be him. Holly took the seat without hesitation and continued talking. “Short of a bunch of high explosives the easiest way to do that is an outside hatch.”

“Riiiiight…” Walker’s voice trailed away, a look of realization dawning. “But all the interior and exterior hatches open inwards.”

Sam and Randal exchanged a wordless question. Unfortunately, neither one of them had any idea where the logic trail was going.

“Care to share with the rest of the class?” Ambassador Sudbury asked.

Randal jumped, having forgotten the two Australians had tagged along behind them. Which reminded him of something else. “Yeah, and where’s Miss Cochran? She was supposed to be with you, too. Well, not supposed to but…”

Holly ignored the second question. “Have you ever tried to open an inwards facing door in an air tight room? Depending on the air pressure it can be difficult or even impossible.”

Walker plunked himself down at a nearby console and started working the screen. “Yeah but the hull maintenance access is pretty big. You’d need a couple of atmospheres of pressure, minimum, to make them too hard for a person to open – you’d probably want to shoot for five to be on the safe side.”

“Is that too much for your atmospherics to handle?” Hathoway asked.

“It’s not a matter of the air pumps, if that’s what your asking.” The new man who they’d found with Holly leaned back from his own console. “It’s the chemical mix.”

“I’m sorry,” Sudbury interjected, “you are?”

The stranger brushed his own hair, almost shoulder length, messy and damp, back and jerked a thumb at his chest.”Ben Hornsby, atmospheric engineer. Deputy Cartwright had me and my mate Mag helping Deputy Ramon out. We were set to meet him back here after our perimeter check and he had us help Holly with the new programing.”

Walker gave Ben an incredulous look. “If you’re in atmospherics then you should know you can’t just go cranking the air pressure up on people – over a certain point oxygen and even nitrogen become poisonous to people.”

“Unless you mix helium into the air rather than just increasing the mixture at standard ratios,” Ben said with a grin. “Trust me, I know what I’m doing.”

“Yeah, I’m not an expert-”

Walker gave Sam a surprised look. “But you know all about general experts?”

“Enough to know they don’t exist,” Sam said with a mock scowl. “What I want to know is, where are we getting helium from? I know we don’t keep it on hand.”

“Mag went to get it,” Ben said. “He knows someone who works at the McClain lab and he was pretty sure they use liquid helium as a coolant for some of their processes. We can convert that to gas and pump it in once I’m done over here.”

“Wait.” Randal gave Sam’s deputy a curious look. “This isn’t Mag? That wasn’t short for Margaret or something?”

She smiled. “My name’s Tanya Ramon. Mag was a ceramics engineer who was with us earlier.”

“McClain’s should be in lockdown,” Sam pointed out. “How is he going to talk to them?”

“Not my problem,” Ben said with a shrug.

“Except this whole nutty scheme of yours requires the helium to work right,” Walker pointed out.

“Not necessarily,” Sudbury said. “This area isn’t normally occupied, correct?” He got an affirmative nod from Walker. “Then just flood the area and if this fish out of water is there anyway well…”

“Sacrifices must be made?” Sam demanded, his voice suddenly hard.

Randal cleared his throat in the uncomfortable silence that followed, pulling the room’s attention back to him. “Where did Deputy Cartwright and Miss Cochran go?”

“They went to the hull access chambers,” Holly said quietly. “I think they were planning to try and find the fish and pull him out.”

“What?” Sam straightened up and a look of intense interest softened his face a touch. “Randal, if Herrigan is going to be in that access corridor, breathing helium, then there is no way we’re letting him out of there before I have something to record his voice on.”

Ben and Walker exchanged a look. Ben said, “We’ll need to put them in a contained environment to slowly return-”

“Shut up,” Hathoway snapped, his eyes burning Ben into silence. “Chief Executive Holman,” he continued, turning his burning gaze to Randal next. “Why would your deputy drag one of our delegation into potential mortal danger? Does he have no idea of his responsibilities here?”

Randal shook his head. Old timers had always talked about how surface people, especially the government, tended to have different priorities than Trenchmen but he’d always chalked it up to bitter memories and tribalism. Maybe there was some element of truth to it after all. “We can discuss Deputy Cartwright’s responsibilities later. Where in the access chambers did they head?”

“I can show you,” Ramon said.

“Good. We’ll head there and work the other way until we find whoever caused this lockdown and get it straightened out.” He clapped a hand on Walker’s shoulder. “You stay here with Miss Newcastle and Mister Hornsby and get this mess sorted. See if you can find a second source of helium in case McClain’s doesn’t work out.”

“Got it,” Walker said.

“Randal,” Sudbury said. “Can I have a moment of your time?”

“Only if you can talk and walk, Ambassador.”

“Of course.”

Randal glanced at Sam and Ramon. “Anything we need to grab before we go? No? Then let’s move.”

Out of Water – Chapter Ten

The hatch swung open with a soft groan and Lauren took an involuntary step back. The cramped corridor beyond faded into the darkness beyond the reach of Herrigan’s torch and the back of Lauren’s brain was quietly reminding her why she’d never gone to sea in spite of years working on the docks. It had taken a lot of wheedling and more than one direct threat to her job for the diplomats in Canberra to convince her to join the group going to Alcatraz. She still wasn’t sure why they’d pushed so hard, her “greater personal experience” with Herrigan’s crew didn’t really make her any better suited to dealing with the totally alien world she’d stumbled into at the bottom of the ocean.

Before he stepped in to the corridor Herrigan dropped to a crouch and shone his light on the floor. Looking over his shoulder Lauren saw that the floor was a grate over a shallow channel with water quietly running through it. She could make out narrow channels in the walls of the corridor where the ubiquitous condensation ran down into the stream beneath the floor. Herrigan hooked his fingers through the grate and flipped a catch hidden along the edge, popped it free and set it aside then dipped his hand in the water.

For a moment he looked a lot like the typical outback roughneck or tracker that she might see on television. Then he shook his head and reached for the grate to put it back. “What was that all about?”

He glanced up as he snapped the floor back in place. “Just checking the local temperature.”

“It is a lot colder here,” she said, pulling her jacket a little tighter around her. Trenchman clothing leaned towards the loose and airy, which was normally a plus in the humid environments they seemed to live in. “Is it because we’re close to the hull?”

“Yeah. Ward Three isn’t anywhere close to a geothermal vent so it’s pretty cool out there and we don’t bother insulating the hull beyond the natural properties of the ceramic. It would just be another thing we’d have to produce that we don’t have the raw materials for.” He pushed himself back to his feet, flicking water from his hand in an offhand, almost subconscious way. “People working here for any length of time tend to bring some kind of heater or something so they don’t catch pneumonia or suffer hypothermia.”

“Or they dress warmly.”

“In this atmosphere, more layers tends to equal more damp cloth on you skin. Heating is the way to go.” He stepped in to the corridor, barely wide enough for to people to squeeze by each other, and motioned for her to follow. “Shut the hatch behind you.”

“I remember the plan, Herrigan.” Lauren hauled the door closed and dogged the hatch. “How do you know this fish out of water guy will heat the section he’s in? If he’s as crazy as you say then he might suffer in the cold just because that’s how he wants to do it.”

“If he’s been down here without a heat source for the last hour the odds he’s going to be any kind of a problem are pretty low. I’ve fished enough dead bodies out of these places after accidents and stupid decisions to know just how fast this place can kill you.” Lauren came to a stop, the rattling of the grates under her feet echoing away into the dark. Herrigan went a few steps more, his own footfalls barely audible over the echoes. She wasn’t sure how he was so quiet, the grates were loose and should rattle under the lightest weight. “Something wrong?”

The corridor was dark behind her and in front the only light was from Herrigan’s torch. The saying was any port in a storm but she wasn’t quite sure she bought that. “How can you be so casual about it?”

There was a quick flick of the eyes around the dimly illuminated area, clearly Herrigan trying to narrow down what the question was about. “Freezing to death in a hull access area?”

She threw her hands up in the air and bashed her knuckles against the ceiling. Muttering, she cradled her hands and shook her head.  “Herrigan, the first time you saw the sun was six weeks ago. You run around the ocean floor in a sub with a leaky nuclear reactor scraping up scraps from lost ships to sell when you get home, where you drink booze made from seaweed and pat yourself on the back for finding the materials to keep your underwater prison colony growing. You’re a part time sheriff and that means you occasionally pull frozen bodies out of dark holes in a prison colony. And somehow you’re completely calm about it.”

“I guess I never thought of it like that.” Herrigan planted both hands on his hips, flipping the torch around with a practiced move so they could still see. “It probably looks strange from the outside but-”

“This isn’t just about perspective, Herrigan.” She waved around at the dark around them. “The government that locked you up here has been gone for years but you people are just as imprisoned as the day they brought you down.”

For a moment he looked thoughtful but then he shook his head and grinned. “That doesn’t add up at all, Lauren. We don’t have prisons down here – kinda rubs people the wrong way – but we all know how they work. You get locked up in a box and you don’t get to do anything. Everything’s decided for you and you shuffle along from place to place marching to someone else’s tune. And you sure don’t stick your neck out for someone who’s in trouble.”

Lauren snorted and waved towards the inside of the hull. “You said yourself that the people there aren’t in trouble if the place floods.”

“I wasn’t talking about them. Come on,” he turned and headed back into the dark, “that fish ain’t getting back in the water on his own.”

Out of Water – Chapter Nine

“You don’t have any kind of emplaced defenses at your hatches?” Hathoway demanded.

The three Chiefs passed a look around, silently asking who wanted to field the touchy sergeant’s question this time. Randal blinked first. “I know that, given the context, this is going to sound wrong,” he said, “but they are exterior hatches on a deep sea colony. We don’t expect anyone to want to open them outside of safe, controlled situations.”

“Anyone normal,” Sam tossed in.

“Sorry, but wasn’t one of the potential reasons for this sabotage you discussed earlier industrial espionage?” Ambassador Sudbury asked, not accusingly but with mild curiosity. “Surely opening a few hatches would be a quick way to cover a corporate gambit of some sort.”

Walker laughed. “Not if they wanted to survive. The hatches are manual only – can’t be activated remotely. Anyone opening one from the inside is getting crushed or drowned in the process unless they’ve got the right gear on hand. And that’s for the same reason we don’t have advanced defenses at the hatches in the first place.”

“Which is?”

“Electronic control systems cost too much to build.” Walker rapped his knuckles against the access hatch to the sealed section which he and Sam had been working on getting open for the last five minutes. “There’s only one electronic control for the emergency lockdown system, kept in a central location, and it triggers a pneumatic system that locks the dogs on the hatch in place when the protocol is tripped.”

“You’re short on electrical components?” Sudbury asked.

“Semiconductors are hard to get ahold of down here.” Walker reached into the access panel he’d been working on and pulled out a lever about as long as his for arm. “We have to refine most of them from seawater or scavenge them from wrecks.”

After throwing the lever to one side Walker stood to one side and let Sam crank the lever up and down for about ten seconds, then there was a loud pang from the hatch as the dogs snapped open. Hathoway eyed the hatch warily and said, “Are we going to be locking that behind us when we go through?”

“I will be,” Walker confirmed. “Whether it’ll be dogged behind the rest of you is all on whether you go through or not. Really, this is an engineering problem, not an executive or justice problem, so I should just wait here for the specialized team that’s coming up behind us. But it’s ten minutes away and if we are dealing with a fish out of water who’s planning to try and flood the colony we’re on a serious clock. On the other hand, this is kind of an Australian problem, but I think your interests are best served letting people who know the situation and have a lay of the land take care of it. But if you want to come, I won’t stop you. Extra hands would let us go two ways at once.”

“Making sure this delegation is safe is my job,” Hathoway said. “So I’m definitely going.”

Everyone looked to Sudbury. “I think Sergeant Hathoway and Chief Walker both have sound points. But before I decide to stay I need to know two things.”

“Ask away,” Randal said.

The ambassador ticked them off on his fingers. “First, what does it benefit a person who wants to flood the Ward to activate a failsafe that prevents that from happening? And second, why would switching off that system make it more difficult for our fish out of water to achieve his goal?”

“I’ve been thinking about that,” Sam said. The other two Chiefs gave him a surprised look and he shrugged. “It is kind of my job to think about these things. And what it boils down to is that there’s no real reason to trigger a breach lockdown if you’re a fish out of water-”

Hathoway jabbed a finger at Walker. “He seems to think there is.”

Walker threw his hands up in defense. “Because it actually happened! The fish had disabled the pneumatics on an interior hatch so it wouldn’t seal and probably planned to open the exterior hatch after the lockdown the same way we did just now.”

“Why didn’t he pull it off?” Randal asked.

“He was in a part of the communications team and not the hull maintenance team,” Walker said. “He didn’t know the schedules and pulled his stunt on the same day a maintenance team was doing an inspection of that compartment. They caught him before he could open the exterior hatch, although he got pretty close.”

“Wouldn’t that have just resulted in two sections flooding?” Sudbury asked.

“That’d be more than any other fish has ever managed,” Randal pointed out.

Sam waved them down, looking annoyed. “If you’ll let me finish. There’s no real reason to trigger a breach lockdown if you’re a fish out of water unless you’re looking to exploit the securing procedure.”

Sudbury frowned. “For those of us who are new here, what exactly is that?”

“It’s a five minute systems check that runs when a section secures from lockdown,” Walker said. “All communications lines and sensors run checks and someone from the engineers gets the hatches undogged and opened.”

“During that time can another lockdown be triggered?” Sam asked.

Walker turned pale. “No. The system wouldn’t start the procedure until it was finished with the system check. Ninety percent sure.”

Randal sighed. “Why can’t the crisis every be simple and easy?”

“It’d never make it to crisis status if it was,” Sudbury answered with a grin. “And I think that, like Sergeant Hathoway, I should come along to make sure our people in there are safe. And it sounds like you people could use all the hands you can get.”

“All right then,” Randal said. “Lead on, Walker. Lead on.”

Out of Water – Chapter Eight

Herrigan shone his flashlight into the ground floor window of McClain Magnetic Engineering, Second Branch, and peered around the room. Down by his elbow Lauren asked, “What do you see?”

“Looks like a reception room.” He hopped down off of the bench they’d picked up on the sidewalk and dragged half way ’round the building and straightened his jacket. “My guess is we won’t see anything important on the ground floor, McClain was notoriously paranoid to the end of her life and her company kept the mindset after she died. All the important stuff is probably interior with no direct outlets.”

“So why are we here again?” Holly asked.

“I’m here to look for signs someone’s tried to break in using the outage as a cover.” Herrigan waved a hand at the two of them. “You guys are here because I didn’t want to leave you in a bar full of roughnecks. You’re kind of important dignitaries here, you know.”

Lauren smirked. “So you bring all visiting dignitaries to a bar full of roughnecks.”

“So far,” he said sheepishly.

“Where are all the people?” Holly had hopped up on the bench and had her hands cupped around her face, trying to peer in. “It’s still working hours, right?”

“There’s people in there ’round the clock. We don’t have very strict ideas of day and night down here for obvious reasons, so work shifts aren’t really scheduled with that in mind. But my guess would be there’s safe rooms in there for  emergencies.” Herrigan clipped his flashlight into a loop on the shoulder of his coat designed to keep it pointed more or less in front of him. “Remember, Sonny said this started as a breach lockdown.”

“What are the odds that’s what this actually is?” Lauren asked.

It was a question he had to give real consideration. So far he’d just been reacting to what was going on, trying to get a handle on the situation. So far Herrigan still wasn’t sure what was going on and that made it hard to get out ahead of things. But there were things he could rule out.

“Honestly, I think the chances of this being the result of an actual hull breach are pretty small.” He helped Holly down from the bench and the two of them picked it up and started walking it around the building to the next window. “If it was we’d still have contact with the rest of the Ward, it would take a truly freak accident for a hull breach to cut communications. And even if that did happen, the Ward engineers would be moving through, checking compartment integrity and reopening them as fast as the could safely do it. Compartments on lockdown aren’t the best place to be.”

“How many of these compartments are there in lockdown?” Lauren asked. “Maybe they just haven’t gotten to this one yet.”

“Depends on how old a place is. Long story short, in this section there’s nine separate compartments. Most big buildings, like this one,” he jerked his chin in the direction of the McClain building, “can lock watertight and take the pressure at this depth, too. And this is McClain central, so that’s pretty much a given in this case.”

“Any relation to the Erin McClain you said your sub is named after?”

Herrigan chuckled. “One and the same. Not everyone here was a fan of her but when Eddie was christened Erin had just passed a few years ago and naming stuff after her was kind of in style.”

“You never changed it?” Holly asked.

“Bad luck to change a ship’s name like that.” They stopped at the last window and set the bench down again, then Herrigan unclipped his flashlight and climbed up on the bench once more.

As he was surveying another empty room he heard Holly running one hand along the side of the building. “What is this place made out of?” He couldn’t quite squash a laugh and Holly followed up in an embarrassed tone. “Sorry. I know I’m asking a lot of questions.”

“Didn’t mean to sound condescending,” Herrigan said, leaving another empty window behind him as he climbed down again. “Just thought the question ironic. This here,” he rapped his knuckles against the smooth ceramic surface, “is genuine McClain clamshell.”

“Clamshell?” It was Lauren’s turn to ask.

“Magnetically Aligned Ceramic, or MAC, is the technical term, which is about all I know about the technicalities of the stuff.” He offered a helpless shrug. “All most people know about it is that it’s a ceramic that uses the same principles of molecular construction as a clam uses in its shell, just with tougher materials, which is why it can hold up to pressure down here. It’s strong, quick to make and doesn’t require metal.”

Lauren frowned. “I take it you don’t have much in the way of metal on hand?”

“I don’t spend eight months a year on Eddie because I like the company. We do a little underwater mining but salvage is our main source of metal since we lost contact with the surface. ”

“If you don’t mind another question,” Holly said, “How do you molecularly construct something?”

“Since MAC came after McClain got a handle on functional nanotech I assume the one requires the other…” Herrigan trailed off when he realized both women were staring at him. “She was one woman in a technological backwater. How can you guys not have cracked working nanotech yet?”

Holly looked personally offended. “Hey, you guys still run your telecomm network on fiber optics.”

“Well the US didn’t exile any politically disruptive communications experts. Not our fault.” Herrigan caught up one side of the bench and Holly sighed and grabbed the other, a barely audible grunt escaping as she hefted it up again.

There was a moment of silence as the three digested that, dragging the bench back to its original resting spot. As Herrigan and Holly got it settled Lauren asked, “Do you need to go in and check on the people in there?”

It was a question he’d been asking himself a lot over the last half hour. The windows and entryways were intact and, just as importantly, the markings that fluoresced under the UV function of his deputy’s flashlight were still there so they hadn’t been replaced by particularly resourceful intruders. “I don’t think so. There’s no sign of a break in and the company can afford really good anti-flooding measures. I’m more interested in running down Mag’s theory about why this is happening.”

“A fish out of water.” He’d explained the concept on their way over but Lauren still sounded a bit skeptical. “You really think there’s someone who’s gone crazy enough to want to flood the whole colony? He can’t expect to survive.”

“There’s six confirmed cases on record,” Herrigan replied with a shrug. “Two of ’em partly succeeded. The experts can’t say why they do it for sure, so I’m not gonna hazard a guess, but we know it happens.”

Holly nodded once, as if he’d just confirmed something in her mind. “Then we should find him ASAP. Where would we start looking?”

“Somewhere near the hull,” Herrigan said, considering his options. “And now that I think about it, I might need your help with it…”

When it’s Work

Everyone thinks that being an artist means crawling in to your happy place and spending an hour or three pouring out a part of yourself onto paper or into music or whatever. It’s all inspiration and creativity and fun. Even artists think like that. And there’s truth to the notion, it does happen.

But it’s work a good chunk of the time. Musicians practice endlessly, only occasionally getting it right. Drawing, painting and animating has huge amounts of tedious detail work. Writing is 90% editing and trust me, it’s no fun. And that’s before the other things. The Life things.

Sometimes you’re depressed. Sometimes your support network seems like it’s slipping away from you. Sometimes you spend a month or two moving into a new place and you just need to get all your ducks in a row. Sometimes you commit a week of precious vacation time to volunteer in a way that, while important, is still emotionally and physically draining. Every once in a great while all those things happen at once.

Handling those things is important and everyone understands those circumstances when they happen. But they make it hard to switch off the world and focus on the chase, the search for the muse, the quest for inspiration.

You see, artists don’t go chasing after art because they are somehow unique or gifted with inspiration. Artists chase art because we need to be inspired so much that we can’t wait to stumble across inspiration so we go and seek it out.

Everyone tells you before you start, of course. That the spark of greatness is not something you find every day, that there will be large stretches of the mundane, that you will have to push through to find what you want, just like everyone else. Sometimes it’s not fun. Sometimes it’s work.

And sometimes that work is more than you thought. Sometimes even modest goals prove too much for you. Sometimes you spend all that you can spare and you can’t break through to the next level. Life creeps up around you and all that joy you had in creating seeps away. You can find satisfaction in other things. Maybe it’s okay to take a break for a day, or a week, or a month, or even a few years. After all, you have all those other opportunities to follow up on and all those people to talk to and hang out with.

At times like those it’s really easy to say yes, let’s just take a break. It’s hard work. You’ve earned it.

And to be honest, no one will blame you if that’s what you do. It is hard. Most of the time, no one is expecting much of you. And inspiration can wait. Art, by it’s very nature, is timeless. You can find it any time and it will still be valuable. That’s part of what makes it beautiful.

But let me tell you a secret.

Sit down at that keyboard. With that pen and paper. Pick up that instrument. Tell them all about the times you’ve been having. Don’t let anyone see it. Don’t let anyone hear it. This is just for you.

And when you’re done, you’ll know it. You’ll find the perspective, you’ll see the barriers for what they are. Tough, sure, but beatable. And beyond that, the inspiration that makes it worthwhile. It’s work, and we’re lucky to have it. Because people like us, whether we’re artists or just hope to be one someday, well…

We can’t live without it.

Story returns next week. See you then.