Out of Water – Chapter Fourteen

Randal found them huddled under blankets near an emergency cache just outside the hull access corridor. Lauren was shivering slightly in spite of the warm air, her eyes focused somewhere in the middle distance and her clothes, those that he could see around the edges of her blanket, still wet and clinging. Herrigan had a blanket over his own shoulders and was hunched by another bedgraggled man. Both looked considerably dryer than Lauren, but then they were dressed for the local weather and she wasn’t.

Almost as soon as the three were in sight Sudbury and Hathoway pushed past him and hustled over to Lauren, both men radiating concern. Randal and Sam drifted over to Herrigan, giving the Aussies a few moments of privacy. Sam knelt down by his cousin and flipped the semi-conscious man he had in custody over. The three trenchman stared at him for a moment then Sam asked, “Anyone know who this is?”

“Never seen him before,” Herrigan said, straightening up and stretching. “I caught him, that means someone else gets to look into him. I vote for Ramon.”

Randal shook his head and leaned against the wall. “That’s something you can work out later. Do you want to leave him here until Walker gets the power back on or try and drag him into a holding cell now?”

“Just leave him,” Sam said. “I’d like to call in a proper team to move him. You never know what these unhinged types are going to try. We’ll get him somewhere we can help him get his head on straight but until then he’s pretty much the scariest thing we’ve had in the ward since it was built.”

Herrigan’s eyes slid over to the knot of Australians a few steps away. “And those guys?”

“I dunno,” Randal mused. “I think once they’re over your nearly getting a member of their delegation killed they’ll be ready to sit down and talk. I’m just not convinced talking is what they’re interested in yet. It’s been really hard to read their intentions when they’re worried because one of their delegation got dragged into a life and death situation!

“Lauren’s job here is to be a sounding board for our culture and provide the ambassador with the perspective of a normal person,” Herrigan said. “Was there a better time for her to see the rougher side of life down here?”

“What, she just told you what her job was?” Randal demanded.

“It was guesswork,” he admitted. “But it has a certain ring of truth about it.”

“And you thought the best way to let her sample the sights was to get her drunk and go chasing an unstable man through the guts of the colony.” Sam wasn’t asking a question.

“Best part of who we are, if you ask me,” Herrigan replied with a grin.

“Right.” Randal knew better than to jump between the cousins when they got like this. “And leaving the Newcastle girl in the middle of our technical hubs?”

“Her job is to communicate anything they find with the surface. From what she said when things here went south, I’m guessing communications is her specialty and what we’ve got here is ages behind Australia’s tech.” Herrigan shrugged. “I’m not a coding expert but I doubt she could parse our computer security set-ups in a couple of days, much less a couple of hours. I looked at some source code for the computers they run on the surface and if what we’ve got is Greek to me, they’re stuff is Hindi. If they’re going to talk to the surface they’re going to do it with something they’ve already got on hand. Thus, letting her look at our computers for a little while isn’t costing us much.”

“Other than showing them how far behind we are,” Sam said.

“Other than that,” his cousin admitted. “But if there’s someone here who’s going to try something underhanded my bet is it’ll be the ambassador.”

“Sudbury?” Randal raised an eyebrow.

“Well, he’d have diplomatic immunity on the surface, right?”

That was something he hadn’t considered before. “Yes, he would.”

“‘Course, no reason we’d have to extend it to him here,” Sam mused. “We aren’t exactly covered by those conventions…”

Randal laughed. Then realized Sam had definitely not meant it as a joke. “For now, let’s consider that he does. Shooting messengers isn’t just bad form, it’s stupid. And I don’t want my name living in infamy because we went off half cocked and started a war with Australia. Let’s just get them a place to stay and sleep on it.” Randal glanced at his watch and realized with a jolt that it had been less than twelve hours since he’d gone to meet Erin’s Dream with Sam. “I don’t know about you folks but I’m tired and it hasn’t even been a long day. Let’s just head home and see what the situation looks like in the morning.”

“All right, Randal,” Sam said, getting to his feet. “You’re the boss.”

——–

Of course it wasn’t as simple as that. But in ten minutes or so the power was back, comm lines were open again and Ramon showed up with a couple of other deputies and took the as-of-yet nameless fish out of water off to find him some tranquilizers and trained psychiatric care. Once he was out of sight he offered Lauren a hand and pulled her to her feet. She was still shivering slightly, although Hathoway had given her something that seemed to have helped.

“Tomorrow morning, first thing, we’re getting all of you some clothes that will hold up a little better down here,” Herrigan said. “Otherwise you’ll catch cold and the fabrics will begin to rot. Assuming they’re not synthetic.”

“I have no idea what my clothes are made out of,” Lauren replied. “Is he going to be alright?”

“I’d like to say sure, but it’s mostly up to him now,” Herrigan said. “All of us down here are where we are because we were judged a menace to society, it’d be kind of sad to have to lock him up in the middle of the biggest lock up on Earth. But we might have to.”

“Isn’t that a little hypocritical of you?” She asked.

“Maybe. But we won’t stop trying to help him. Hopefully that will be enough of a difference.” He gave her a tired smile. “Hopefully you folks won’t give up on us, either.”

Lauren smiled back. “We’re doing the best we can. So far, I think it’s working.”

Out of Water – Chapter Thirteen

Herrigan grimaced as lukewarm water sloshed over the tops of his shoes. A gasp came from Lauren then she said, “Is there a hatch open already?”

“No.” Herrigan knelt and dipped a finger into the water, sloshed it around a moment to wash any sweat off of it, then touched the tip of his finger to his tongue. “Fresh water.” He spat out the water, which didn’t taste great but wasn’t salt water either. “The whole area would flood in minutes if there was an exterior hatch open. My guess is he plugged up the drainage channel and is letting it back up.”

He stood back up and waded a few steps further in, Lauren tentatively following. The light from her flashlight as she pointed it down to examine the floor. Herrigan wasn’t particularly interested, short of sticking a snorkel out of the water and lying in wait there wasn’t much chance that the fish could be anywhere in this section. They would have heard him by now.

“How deep in here can he be?” Lauren asked.

“Not too deep,” Herrigan murmured. “At this incline it would only be four or five more sections before he’d be under water.”

“And we’re not sure that’s what he wants?”

“I don’t know.” Herrigan reached down and slowly pulled out his riot gun, his body lapsing into a cautious, quiet state with senses alert and muscles half tense, the rest perfectly relaxed. “I’m not a psychologist. Quietly, now.”

He didn’t actually hear Lauren’s teeth click together as she shut her mouth. At least he was pretty sure that was his imagination. For a second he felt bad, since the silence was more to help him clear his head than to attempt stealth. Any sound they were making was being carried straight through the water in the drainage channel to wherever their fish was. Regardless of how much noise they made now the cat was already out of the bag. Question was what to do about it. With a flick of his finger he took the safety off of his riot gun.

With eight shots of quickly expanding foam that would adhere to pretty much any solid surface, riot guns were a great way to tangle up and take down someone without causing them any kind of serious long term injury. But in the current situation the weapon was less comforting than normal. For starters, the close quarters made it less useful than otherwise, although in tight spaces it was just as easy and almost as effective to stick foam on the walls or floor and let people run into it as shoot it directly at someone.

The problem was the water. Riot foam was designed to bond quickly on wet surfaces, which normally made it harden near instantly on the always damp clothes, walls and floors on Alcatraz. But hitting standing water caused the foam to deploy early and being submerged turned a sticky lump of foam into a football sized lump of hard but squishy plastic in a couple of seconds.

Then he had an idea. “Lauren.”

There was a half second pause. “Are we done being quiet?”

“Sort of.” He turned around and handed her his flashlight. “The cat’s already out of the bag, most likely.”

“Oh.” She took his flashlight tentatively. “And?”

“Cats like fish.”

——–

“A truly stupid thing to say,” Lauren muttered five minutes and a quickly whispered explanation later. “A cat would never do something as silly as this.”

Herrigan didn’t reply because he had stayed in the previous compartment because he apparently thought he was a reincarnated crocodile. She’d been given both their torches and Herrigan’s revolver and essentially become the bait in their little fishing expedition. Another decidedly uncatlike thing. Cats expected their food delivered, they didn’t go hunting for it. Alcatraz didn’t have cats in the first place.

To be fair, the idea was pretty sound. She just wished she didn’t have to be the bait. Sure, it made sense to have the person who’d actually had a little hand to hand training be the one to try and catch their target by surprise but that didn’t mean she had to be happy about being dangled out on the end of a fishhook for whoever to come out and grab.

After some fumbling she’d decided to hook one torch to her belt and keep the other held out a bit to the other side at shoulder height, not only letting her see a fair bit more of the hallway but hopefully at least giving the impression of two people still poking through the corridor rather than just one. The gun he’d given her was in the other hand, it’s rubberized grip firm but scratchy. The torch, on the other hand, was made of that smooth, vaguely textured ceramic Herrigan had been so proud of and he’d assured her it was completely watertight which was good because the water was now all the way up to her mid thighs and soon the one on her belt would be completely underwater.

And she was so focused on where her lights were and whether they’d stay on under water that she almost missed the head bobbing up over the water just to her right. It wasn’t until they whipped their head around, short hair flinging water in all directions as the whites of their eyes suddenly came into view and focused on her, that she realized it was there and yelped.

Something grabbed one of her legs and yanked, she wound up in the water and got a mouth full of tepid, mold flavored swill before her hands found the floor and pushed her upright enough to get her head back above the surface. The fish, or at least what she assumed was the fish out of water they’d come for, scrambled to his feet, not particularly graceful but steady and deliberate. Lauren matched his steadiness with a frantic scramble backwards and, without thinking, threw the torch. It hit him in the shoulder but didn’t slow him down as he waded forward. Belatedly she remembered she had a gun in her off hand and swung the barrel around, firing.

Of course with both electric torches underwater there was no way for her to get a clear picture of what was going on and she was pretty sure the shots missed as the only indication of a hit was a a couple of inorganic sounding thumps further down the hall. She was trying to fumble her gun into her other hand and get the flashlight off of her hip when a sudden splash preceded Herrigan, who’d apparently masked his own approach by crouching down in the water just as the fish had, suddenly rose up out of the water with his arms wrapped around the other man’s waist and slammed him against the wall. Sodden chaos reigned in the hall for a second as people scrambled and grunted.

Lauren figured shooting now would be stupid, the foam from the pistol wouldn’t hurt either man but sticking them together would still be bad, so she swapped gun and torch and gingerly approached the two men as the grappled. As the light steadied she could tell the fish had somehow swapped positions with Herrigan and he was now the one against the wall so Lauren dropped the gun, wrapped both hands around the handle of the torch and rammed the butt end of it into the side of Herrigan’s opponent. That rocked him enough that Herrigan was able twist around and reestablish the dominant position, pressing the other man against the wall with an arm across his chest. The struggle looked like it would go on for another couple of minutes if left alone so Lauren reached over Herrigan’s head and clobbered the far man’s skull with the flashlight. He slumped a bit and Herrigan gave his noggin another bounce against the wall for good measure, on which the fish went entirely limp.

Herrigan nodded, stood up and gave Lauren an appreciative grin. “Nice work.”

She just fished the other flashlight out of the water and held it out to him. “Let’s just get out of here, shall we?”

He nodded and slung the unconscious man over one shoulder. “Lead the way. I’m ready to go somewhere dry and well lit myself.”

Out of Water – Chapter Twelve

Sudbury waited until Halloway had dropped a good fifteen paces back, with Sam and his deputy to keep him company, before broaching the topic. When he did he went about it in a suitably diplomatic way. “Mr. Holman, I know that here in Alcatraz things work a great deal differently than on the surface. But I have to admit that, much like Sergeant Halloway I find Deputy Cartwright’s priorities a bit… strange. I wouldn’t question them,” he hastened to add, “but in this case someone he and I are responsible for is at risk. So I have to ask…”

The two men hurried down the dark hallways of the station for a moment, Randal’s flashlight – borrowed from the equipment locker back at the engineering hub – turning the normally drab back halls where maintenance personnel spent most of their time into a bizarre maze of dancing shadows and half-seen paths branching into the dark. Even as a lifetime resident, Randal found it eerie. Sudbury wasn’t finishing his question so Randal gave him a nudge. “Well?”

“Let me put it this way…” Sudbury took a deep breath and settled his shoulders. “In Australia today suicide is considered a human right. Anyone who feels their life has lost meaning is free to leave it. It’s considered an act of compassion for those who are suffering.”

Randal gave the ambassador a sharp look, a flash of pure revulsion nearly driving him to step away before he controlled himself. Instead he demanded, “Is this going somewhere, Ambassador?”

A careful, placating gesture was the first response. Clearly finding a response that properly articulated his points was taxing even a professionally trained diplomatic mind. After another couple of steps Sudbury continued. “I know that, sociologically speaking, frontier settlements tend to insist on as much as the community surviving as possible so the notion of suicide becomes extremely unpalatable so it may not be a comfortable subject for you-”

“Historically Alcatraz has overcrowding problems, not understaffing ones,” Randal put in woodenly, the part of him that insisted on right facts being on the table at war with the part that was mildly horrified by the other man’s line of thought. “In the early days there were a lot of times when we nearly ran out of oxygen to breath. People were paid if they volunteered to get sterilizations and slow down population growth. There was talk of other measures.”

“I… see.”

For a brief moment Randal indulged his urge to make Sudbury just as uncomfortable as he was. “I’ve always suspected that the neoenvironmentalists who led the push to jail us enjoyed the irony of putting us at the mercy of one atmosphere after all the time we supposedly spent damaging another.”

“You must appreciate the irony of the current ice age, then.”

“I think you’re trying to avoid going back to talking about suicide. Weird, since you brought it up. Go on.”

Sudbury nodded. “Of course. My point is just… that your fish out of water has clearly suffered a serious breakdown in mental health. Many who are healthy would find a loss of mental health on this scale to be justification for suicide and we make it a point not to stand in their way if that’s what they choose. It sounds like you could let that happen for your fish and still keep everyone else in this section safe. Instead, Deputy Cartwright has put himself, Lauren Cochran and possibly the rest of this section in danger in an attempt to interfere with the human right of a person who’s name and circumstances we don’t even know. It seems to me like an overreaction. I don’t mean to judge-”

“You should.” Sudbury stopped in surprise but Randal kept going, forcing the ambassador to struggle to keep up. “In Alcatraz a man without judgement gets no respect from anyone. We judged the policies of the government we used to live under repressive and evil and decided exile was better than living under them. In the early days we judged not being the kind of people who encouraged euthanasia and suicide more important than finding an easy solution to our air supply problems. And right now I’m making a judgement.”

He let the statement hang in the air for a moment. “I’ve decided that, whether I know his name or not, that our fish out of water has a life worth living if I can only convince him to live it. Now. Whether that’s worth Lauren Cochran risking her life or not is something you’ll have to judge for yourself.” Randal threw a glance back, not at Sudbury but at Halloway beyond him. “At least one of you already has and I respect that. But if you want to just sit there and not judge your welcome to do it. Just do it from outside the hull access. I don’t want someone without good judgment getting underfoot in there.”

——–

“How much of this is there?” Lauren asked as she waited for Herrigan to work the hatch between the section of hallway they were in and the next.

“Well, a section is shaped like an oval on it’s side and the internal hull access is at the top, bottom and the middle. The big hatches at top and bottom are all mechanical and have to be accessed from outside once a section’s in use and there’s three floors worth of these corridors around the outside.”

Lauren groaned. “You mean we have other floors to cover?”

Herrigan swung the hatch open. “It spirals up and down.” He looped his finger through the air to illustrate. “You may not have noticed but we’re going up at a slight incline right now. This next chamber is actually the top. And no, before you ask, we don’t have to backtrack to where we were. There’s a ladder in every fourth section you can use for quick access to other levels.”

“I’d wondered what those were for,” Lauren said, following him into the final section of hallway which was anticlimactically empty.

“You could have asked.”

“Didn’t seem like a good time.”

The end of the hallway had some kind of computer access built in to the wall over a large footlocker arrangement in the floor. Herrigan pulled out a set of keys and opened the footlocker. After a moment’s rummaging he pulled out two electric torches, both at least twice the size of the one he was currently carrying, and handed one to her. “These will probably let us see better. Let’s head down. We’re more than halfway done.”

Lauren nodded wordlessly, not feeling particularly encouraged by his reassurance. The torch was nice though. As she started down the ladder she asked, “Why put the hallways on an incline? I’d think level flooring would make getting equipment around easier.”

“You may have noticed it’s a little humid down here.”

“Not particularly.”

Herrigan snorted. “Flattery gets you nothing. Anyway, since the hull is so much cooler than the interior there’s a lot of condensation that forms in this section. We have to drain it away through the channels in the floor. While we’re at it we run it over a series of small hydroelectric turbines for whatever extra power we can get out of it.”

“And you need the incline for that.” She shook her head. “That’s a lot of effort for a couple of kilowatts of electricity.”

“Believe me, we need all we can get.” Herrigan stepped off the ladder two floors down. Lauren gamely tagged along. So far sections of the access halls were pretty much repeats of four basic themes. Empty hall, hallway with ladder, hallway with inner hatch, hallway with exterior hatch. The section beyond this one would thus be an inner hatch, presumably the one they entered through. Beyond that would be an exterior hatch… which now that she thought about it was the most likely place to find their quarry. “Say, Herrigan -”

He swung the hatch open to the next section and stepped ankle deep into water.

” – never mind.”

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…”