Citizenship

“Do you approve of the citizenship exam in its current form?”

Elizabeth thought about that question. It didn’t seem wise to disapprove of an exam she was currently taking, but she was also being monitored for truthfulness. It was probably best to answer honestly. “No.”

“Interesting. Do you disapprove of a particular part or the exam as a whole?”

At the moment what she disapproved of most was talking to a blank speaker in a wall. With no tone of voice or expression to judge by she couldn’t get any feel at all for how the interview was going, whether she was doing well or not. It put her on edge, although she wasn’t entirely sure that wasn’t the point.

The ideal of total fairness was elusive in the citizenship exam, current thought put as many layers of anonymity were put between examiner and examinee as possible. Even the voice coming from the speaker was filtered to nearly expressionless neutrality and she knew that her own was likewise altered to the point where the person interviewing her had no idea of her gender, place of birth or age.

It still seemed a little silly to her. But at the same time, Elizabeth knew that if she were to test for her citizenship without all those safeguards her odds of achieving success would drop dramatically. That wasn’t her real problem with the exam. “Giving someone the full rights of citizenship just because they reach a certain age seems foolhardy to me. What’s the difference between being born in the United States and outside of them?

“If foreign nationals become citizens by first being green card holders and then taking the citizenship exam, then the children of citizens should receive green cards at birth and test for their citizenship as well.” Elizabeth leaned back in her chair, stared up at the featureless metal ceiling and wished there were something more interesting to look at. “The people are the government of this country, we should check that they actually know how to govern before entrusting it to them.”

The voice on the other end of the speaker was silent for a moment. “That’s an interesting way to put it. Of course, that idea is hardly a new one. But at the same time, there’s a lot of room for discrimination if we were to test everyone.”

“Somehow, I doubt this process leaves much room for that.” Her sarcasm was lost on whoever was on the other side of the speaker, filtered out by legions of computer subroutines. But she found it therapeutic.

“It doesn’t seem that way, no,” the voice conceded. “But there are a lot of places prior to this where things aren’t so strictly monitored. Even now, it can happen here and there. And the process of signing up for your citizenship exam can be full of complications as well. It was bad enough when we only had national and ethnic difficulties to contend with. When you throw in interplanetary rivalries, not to mention interstellar ones, the potential for discriminate is just too great.”

“If it’s such a bad idea, why have any kind of subjective testing in the citizenship exam at all? I’m sure the process could be automated fairly painlessly.”

“To go off of your previous point, what makes you assume that governing is something that is objective, and not subjective?” the voice asked. “I think I’d enjoy exploring that question at length but the time for this interview is almost over. But consider this. Citizenship comes with benefits and responsibilities. The clearest benefit is the protection of the government. So is being part of governing  a benefit or a responsibility? And if it’s a responsibility, should people who have enjoyed the benefit since birth naturally assume a part of the responsibility at some point? Just something to think about.”

There was a click from the door of the interviewing room. The voice came back once more. “You’re now free to exit to the lobby. Someone will be with you shortly.”

Elizabeth got up and stepped out into the brightly lit lobby of the United States 21st Circuit Courthouse on Outer Centauri Station. It was nearly 1400 and she had been awake since 0400, but she didn’t feel very tired. There had been plenty of time for sleep on the long flight out from Mid Centauri syncorbit and the early flight had been mostly empty, so catching up on her rest hadn’t been a problem.

Fortunately the irregular sleep schedule hadn’t hindered her during the written portion of the exam. She felt less confident about her performance during the interview but it was such a subjective thing she wasn’t even sure how a good interview might have gone. With a sigh Elizabeth plopped down on a bench and looked around.

Unlike the much newer Middle Centauri station, Outer Centauri was a relic from humanity’s first push into deep space. Most public buildings she had been in were full of creeping vines and small bushes bred for maximum leaf size and the greatest possible rate of photosynthesis, natural machines dedicated to turning carbon dioxide into breathable air and usable compost as fast as possible. However, the nutrient frames necessary to sustain those plants had to be purpose built into the structure. The Circuit Court building was far too old for such an apparatus, making do with ferns, large and small, growing out of pretty much every place a home for one could be found. She fidgeted with the leaf of a fern growing next to her bench and did her best to ignore her nerves.

Deep space stations had complex and incredibly redundant biospheres designed to sustain human life even in the face of a catastrophic failure of many of their most technologically advanced systems. The contrast to her own life was stark. If she failed the citizenship exam here she wouldn’t have another chance at what she wanted. The exam could be retaken, but not for another year. By then, she would be too old-

“Elizabeth O’Sullivan?” Her thoughts were interrupted by a tall skinny man with the posture of a long time deep space resident. He kept the fingers of one hand resting lightly against the wall and his knees bent, ready to propel himself in whatever direction necessary if there was a gravity fluctuation. Elizabeth stood and crossed over to him and held out her hand.

“I’m pleased to report you passed, Ms. O’Sullivan,” the man said as he shook her hand. “Congratulations.”

“Thank you very much,” she said. “Are you the person who conducted my interview?”

“I’m afraid I can’t answer that,” he replied, his expression suggesting he didn’t think that made sense any more than she did. “Is there anything else I can do for you today?”

“As a matter of fact, yes.” Elizabeth pulled a tab out of one pocket and held it up. “There was a little datawork I was hoping to get filed while I was here in the Courthouse, if I passed.”

“Of course.” He led Elizabeth down a short path between the shrubbery to a small console. It was a jarring sight, and not just because it was nestled between a pair of rather tall bushes to give privacy from the desks and clerks on either side. It was common knowledge that the government still used strictly physical interface equipment, even though almost no one else did. Or, you might say, because no one else did. The very archaic nature of physint equipment theoretically made it more secure. Still, it was odd to see, especially considering why she had come.

The clerk motioned for Elizabeth to have a seat on one side of a desk in a sleek metallic chair. A display folded up and exposed a touch board which he quickly began tapping on. “What kind of paperwork were you wanting to file?” He asked with a smile. “Voter registration? Information request? Or perhaps an action in small claims court?”

Elizabeth knew what a person sounded like when they were humoring her. She was hearing it now. She also knew exactly what to say to wipe that smile off of his face. “I’m here to sign up for the United States Combined Orbital/Deep Space Forces.”

The smile disappeared but he wasn’t shocked like Elizabeth had expected. His expression became blank for a moment, and then got a little sad. “I see. You realize that there are certain pieces of information I’ll need from you?”

Elizabeth held up the phys tab again. “I’ve heard. That’s why I brought this along.”

The clerk nodded, taking the tab and carefully slotting it into his desk computer. “This may take a few-” He stopped as the screen changed. Apparently it hadn’t taken that long after all. After a few moments of looking things over, he cleared his throat. “It looks like everything is in order. Would you come this way please?”

Elizabeth stood up and followed along behind him. They didn’t go back towards the lobby but instead stepped further into the building, following a path into a long hallway, free of the normally ubiquitous plant life, and through a door into what appeared to be the equivalent of a space station’s deep computing core.

Most modern computing was done wirelessly in a very decentralized fashion. But the really number intensive calculations still needed concentrated, high end processing power to pull off. Things like artificial gravity, atmospheric regulation and Hawking generators still needed the close, careful monitoring of dedicated computer subsystems. Elizabeth had never thought that government computing might have similar needs. She wondered if the system she was seeing was the US Government’s primary computing node on the station, or whether this one just served the courthouse. Given the fairly paranoid level of security most governments showed towards their digital records, she was willing to bet this facility just served the courthouse, which made it’s size seem a bit excessive.

As they moved down into the core Elizabeth saw signs that hinted at why the area might be so big. In at least three different places she saw people working to maintain systems that were at least fifty years out of date and appeared to be hooked into the core by mysterious, complex sequences of strange equipment that might have been better suited to Frankenstein’s lab than a modern computing center. The courthouse was obviously using a lot of obsolete equipment still, whether for security’s sake or bureaucratic necessity she wasn’t sure.

The whole room was circular and it looked like all of the clerk’s desks formed a semi-circle around the top. Elizabeth followed her clerk through a series of stairs, catwalks and ledges holding various kinds of equipment down to the ground floor of the core and from there into another office.

A man in the drab blue day uniform of an officer in the U.S. ComODS Forces leaned on a desk there, facing towards the back wall with one hand tapping a command on the desk’s touch screen over and over. He held a diagnostic readout in his other hand and a panel on the wall behind the desk was open and more old-fashioned cables ran from there to the desk. He didn’t look up as Elizabeth and her escort came in.

“Be with you in a second,” the officer muttered. “Trouble with the old networks.”

Elizabeth glanced at the nameplate on the officer’s desk. “Have you tried flushing your desk processor’s mothergel, Captain Rainer? I’ve heard that standard model Gallagher desk computers made in the last decade or so have a bad tendency to develop a memory if it isn’t swapped out every so often.”

The captain finally turned around to look at them, slightly surprised. “That’s right. But we don’t exactly have the budget to swap out something that expensive every couple of weeks, so I have to run diagnostics before I can authorize the substitution. Have a seat ma’am. What can I do for you?”

“I’m here to enlist, Captain.”

He didn’t look at all surprised. “And I’m guessing you want to join the Biocomputing Corps.”

“Yes, sir.” Elizabeth nodded. Her escort handed the captain the data tab she had given him before.

The officer took the tab and set it aside, pulling an adhesive label out of a printing slot on his desk and tearing it in half. He pressed the adhesive side of one half of the label onto the tab while he spoke. “Very well, ma’am. If you’ve been brought this far then you’ve already produced documentation showing that you qualify for admission to the testing phase of the program. While officially biocomps are so rare we can’t afford to turn one away, they’re also expensive enough to build and train that we want to make sure you actually qualify.”

Elizabeth settled into the chair at the captain’s desk. The room had more in common with the blank, sterile interview room she’d been in a few minutes ago than the artfully arranged green lobby she’d just left. The significance wasn’t lost on her. This man was another hurdle along the way. “Do these tests include calling ahead, taking me the long way around and seeing if I can basic computing problems in nearly obsolete computer equipment?”

Rainer paused in the middle of attaching the other half of his label to a device she wasn’t familiar with to give her a hard look. “As a matter of fact, they do. Turning the human brain into a top of the line biocomputing system, whether civilian or military, is a huge investment of time and materiel. And a ComODS biocomp gets more than just the ability to think forty times faster than the standard human with machine precision – you’re going to be at the heart of a warship. So forgive us if we test you in any way we can think of, at any time we want.”

The captain’s tone suggested he was anything but apologetic. He waited for a moment, as if expecting a reaction, then continued. “It’s going to be a long, hard, ugly process. You may wash out, with nothing to show for the time and effort you put into the program but two years spent away form home and a really nice haircut. You may wind up with your brain rewired to smell colors. There’s a very small chance you may become a permanent vegetable. But we need you, so that concludes the mandatory scaring you to death part of the interview. Regulations state that you have twenty-four hours in which to consider whether you want go through with this or not.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, sir,” Elizabeth said.

The captain eyed her for a minute then, apparently resigned to the fact that he hadn’t managed to run her off with a frightening speech, grunted and slotted her tab, label and all, into the computer rig on his desk. As she had expected, Rainer’s computer trouble had magically cleared up an he had no trouble getting the data to load. The captain perused the files with the eye of an experienced paper warrior. “Math aptitude looks good,” he murmured. “Good IQ, high emotional resiliency profile.” He frowned. “What’s this?”

“That’s a gel processor cleanup routine I wrote,” Elizabeth answered. She knew exactly which file he meant as it was the only one he hadn’t mentioned so far, other than the basic biographical data that you would expect to find on any kind of job application. “It enhances the performance of older systems by as much as forty percent when part of a proper maintenance routine.”

“Older systems?” The captain asked, curious.

“Aging systems are at the heart of any peacetime space navy,” she said. “More time is spent maintaining them than developing new systems. Am I right?”

Rainer winced and nodded. “True, although I recommend not mentioning that fact until you reach a position of seniority. And you should probably refrain from ever using the word ‘navy’ except as an insult.”

“Right,” she murmured. “Interservice rivalry.”

“That aside, why did you include it here?”

“Because it’s a part of the application process,” Elizabeth said blandly. “Although it’s not part of the stated requirements. Another one of your tests, I presume.”

“No reason denying that,” the captain said with a shrug. “What I’m asking is how you knew we’d be looking for it.”

Elizabeth sighed. “There’s a lot of different places you can find out,” she said, wiggling a bit further back into her chair in an attempt to keep blood moving. “I’m guessing that there’s some bad advice seeded out there by people like you, and presumably you make sure there’s one or two real sets of guidelines for the test out there, too. Then all that information proliferates through planetary Internets. But in my case it was possible to skip all that data sifting by finding a retired Master Sergeant that had worked to set up the program, then retired. He told me that, at the time the program started, prospective applicants were expected to show initiative in addressing computing issues, and it was likely that that requirement was still in place. Twenty-five years is apparently a very short time in the world of military regulations.”

“And did it ever occur to you that his giving you that information might be prohibited?” Rainer asked darkly.

“No, actually, but it did occur to him. So I pestered him into looking it up, and he was only supposed to keep quiet about aspects of the program which were not made public.” Elizabeth shrugged. “Requirements for applying to the corps was made public, so it wasn’t off limits. I would suggest that you adjust the regulations if you want to maintain the mystery requirement.”

“Yes,” he said quietly, making a note on his computer screen. “So it would seem.” Once he was finished with that, Captain Reiner deposited the tab into a plastic envelope and pressed down on the molecular seal, creating a nearly impossible to duplicate bond that would ensure the documents weren’t tampered with. Then he put the other half of the label into a file. “From this point out you are BioComputing Cadet Candidate St. Claire. By law, you are forbidden to tell anyone of your identity in the BioComputing Corps or even to mention that you have applied. If you mention either of these facts to anyone you will be immediately disqualified.”

“I understand, sir,” Elizabeth replied.

Captain Reinter tucked the envelope away in a drawer. “I’m not really sure you do, Cadet Candidate. But you have twenty-four hours to think about it.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow then.” She got down from the chair and sketched something like a salute, then headed for the door.

——–

Rainer watched the door slide closed and sighed, then stood up from the desk and began closing down computer console. It was time to move back to his regular office. He glanced over at the clerk, who had watched the entire interview quietly from one corner of the room. “You going to come stand as witness when the paperwork’s signed, Sam?”

He sighed and shook his head. “She’s twelve years old, Brian.”

“First biocomp application?” The captain asked, pausing as he collected the diagnostic equipment he’d been using.

“How can you be so calm?” The clerk demanded.

“Like it or not, she’s an adult under the law,” Rainer said. “She passed her citizenship exam and has all the right, privileges and responsibilities that entails. She can join if she wants. And we can’t make a biocomputer out of the brain of someone much older than her. They just won’t be resilient enough.”

Sam shook his head. “Craziest law I’ve ever heard of, when a person not even in their teens can be declared an adult and have their head chopped open. What is this country coming to?”

“People have been asking that since it was founded. At one time kids were locked away from the rest of society for twelve years before they were given any idea how the world really worked.” Rainer slapped the clerk in the back. “Besides, the operation is done by nanotech. No bone saws involved. Come on, I’ll buy you a drink.”

“I think I’ll need it more tomorrow. Do you think she’ll come back?”

“The smart ones always do,” Rainer said sadly. “The smart ones always do.”

Fiction Index

Emergency Surface

When the hull ruptured and a sheet of super pressurized water cut Brian Parr in half it happened so fast Herrigan didn’t even realize what had taken place until he was half way out of the galley. After ten years on underwater salvage ships, where one trip without a fatal accident was considered a minor miracle, he had gotten to the point where reacting to disaster was a subconscious instinct and it served him in good stead, just like it always had in the past. He was stepping through the pressure door into the mess hall, running a hand along the seal to check it’s integrity through sheer force of habit,  before his conscious mind even registered that Parr was dead.

“Everybody out!” Herrigan yelled as he ducked through the hatch. “Hull breach in the galley, this door’s compromised.”

To their credit, the scattered handful of the Erin’s Dream‘s crew that was in the mess reacted just as fast as Herrigan had, jumping up from their tables without bothering to take anything but the essentials. Men poured out of the hall and into the corridor beyond in a matter of seconds, not that it was a large room, leaving Herrigan to again check the door seal and dog the hatch behind him. He brushed his hands off and said, “This door’s good, we should be okay.”

“If the captain had just McClained the hull before this trip we wouldn’t even have to worry about it,” said one of the men in the hall with him, a skinny fellow who was still clutching the cup of coffee he’d been nursing before being evicted from the mess. “That stuff almost never-”

“Shut up, Drip,” Herrigan snapped. “Has anyone reported this to the bridge yet?”

“On it!” A voice called from in the next compartment. As if to emphasize the point alarms started ringing.

“-I know I would have taken a pay cut on the last run if it would have meant-”

Herrigan grabbed Drip by the shoulder and gave him a hard shove towards the ladder. “I said stow it, Drip. Get to your posts, people.”

“Herrigan!” A head popped out of the hatch just beyond the small crowd. “Bridge wants you.”

With a growl, he reversed course and shouldered his way through the dispersing men and into the small electrical closet just beyond. “What is it?” He asked.

——–

“Captain, we’re showing flooding in compartment 132.”

Oscar Duffy, captain and co-owner of the Erin’s Dream, looked up from his weight management tables, leaving the mystery of the overburdened water pumps in the forward compartments to be worked out later. If it still mattered at all. The cramped bridge of the salvage submarine didn’t have much in the way of space between monitors so he barely needed to stand up and slide a step to the right in order to look over the shoulder of the engineer on watch.

“What’s the situation, Graham?” He asked.

“The galley is flooding fast.” Graham looked up over his shoulder. “I’d almost say it’s a mercy to be spared the chow, except Herrigan turned them out of the mess hall too. Not sure why yet, but if the seal between them is compromised we’re gonna loose ’em both. That could bottom us.”

Duffy grit his teeth and restrained the urge to spit, irritation conflicting with a naturally tidy personality, with the knowledge that a part of his ship was already a wreck the only thing that kept him from spitting. “Sound the hull breach alarm, then.”

“Alarms are already going off, Captain,” the XO announced, the blaring sound that accompanied her as she stepped through the pressure door serving to emphasize the point.

“Why isn’t it sounding here?” Duffy demanded.

“Because it’s broken,” Graham said, waving a hand around the bridge to encompass the various monitors. “It seemed like a low priority fix because, you know…”

“Right.” Duffy grit his teeth again. “How much water are we looking at?”

“Captain, taken together those two compartments hold something like four times what a single ballast tank holds.” Graham was working through screens at top speed. “Whatever went wrong down there, it’s cut the galley’s hatches out of the monitoring system. If the storage lockers are standing open we could be looking at more.”

Duffy spun and shot his XO a look. “Get ahold of whoever was on galley duty and find out.” She responded with a nod and took her station. Duffy turned back to Graham’s monitor. “Do we have enough ballast in the tanks to maintain buoyancy?”

“Without dumping any of our haul? I don’t think so…”

——–

“Did we leave the freezer open?” Herrigan asked, incredulous. “I don’t know, Gwen, I wasn’t paying attention to everything Brian was doing! There was an inch thick sheet of water spraying in from the hull, I didn’t have time to check.”

“-really ought to have some kind of wireless system on this boat instead of relying on wiring. Who does that any-”

“Captain’s just trying to figure out how much ballast we need to loose to stay buoyant,” Gwen said, her voice nearly lost under the sound of alarms and Drip’s incessant chattering. “Do you know if Parr would have gone in it at all recently?”

“-and we really should have magnetic seals, too-”

Herrigan threw his hands in the air; even though Gwen couldn’t see the gesture it helped his frustration a little. “About ninety percent of what we cook requires something out of the storage locker and Brian can be a bit absent minded so my guess would be yes, it was probably left open. Even if it wasn’t I’m not sure that they could stand up to the pressure this far down. Can’t you just play it by ear?”

“-shouldn’t be chatting up girls when our stations-”

“I’m sure we could, but you know Duffy. Always likes to have his choice of agonies.” There was a moment’s quiet as Gwen spoke to someone on the bridge. Then she asked, “Who is that? Do you have Drip with you?” Herrigan spared a moment’s attention to smack Drip on the shoulder.

“OW! Watch it, Harry. And since when does everybody insist on calling me Drip? My real name-”

“He’s here,” Herrigan said. “I’m not even sure why you had to ask.”

“Can’t you shut him up?” Gwen asked.

“No,” Herrigan said sadly. “He’s like a good luck charm. As long as he’s still talking, we’re not sinking.”

——–

“Surface?” Duffy asked, incredulous. “We’re not in the middle of the Pacific, Graham, we’re barely four hundred miles from Australia. We can’t just go popping up to the surface, what if we get seen? The Wards already hate having privately owned salvage ships out as it is, they’ll have a field day if we’re the ones that remind the surface Alcatraz is still kicking.”

“What’s going on?” Gwen asked, shuffling around the captain’s chair and crowding the Engineering monitor further.

“We need to surface to repair the hull,” Graham said.

“That’s crazy,” Gwen said automatically. “No Trenchmen have been to the surface in eighty years.”

Graham rubbed his forehead like a man with a headache. “This is why dad says you’re too impulsive. You don’t get all the facts before you make a decision.” He cleared his screen and brought up a basic blueprint of the Erin’s Dream. “Now listen, when she was built ten years ago Eddie was a fine ship. Erin McClain herself couldn’t have asked for more. But even if she wasn’t a decade old she couldn’t handle running the Trench with her belly full of water. Trying to fight the current with the weight messed up and the hull compromised would most likely tear us in half.”

Graham tapped the flooded compartments on his screen for emphasis. “You try heading into the Marianas Trench like this and you’re gonna tear this ship in half.”

“Why can’t we patch the hull?” Gwen asked. “Send one of the salvage subs out to slap a patch over the leak.”

“Because we need to patch the inner layer – the pressure hull,” Duffy said, tracing along the line on the schematics. “That would mean peeling off the outer hull and anything between them. Since it’s all one part that would probably just make the weakness in the pressure hull worse.”

“Not to mention what it would do to our hydrodynamic profile,” Graham added. “There’s no way we could run the currents in the Trench safely with a slipshod patch on the outer hull.”

Duffy pressed the palms of his hands into his eyes, suddenly feeling very, very tired. “All right, Graham. We’ll do it your way.” He caught Gwen’s eye and saw his own apprehension mirrored there. “Give the order to take us up.”

Gwen nodded and stepped over to her station then hit the shipwide intercom. “Attention all hands. Prepare for emergency surface.”

——–

“We’re gonna get shot.” Drip slung his Waldo suit’s mask into place and let it dangle around his neck, tucking his helmet under one arm. “The Japanese are gonna find us and shoot us for breaking Kyoto 3 and-”

Eddie runs on nuclear power,” Herrigan said, giving Drip’s suit a quick check to make sure it was intact. “There’s nothing environmentally unfriendly about that.”

“-cause we’re from the Environmental Extremist Colony and everything we do is bad for the environment!” Drip whipped around and jabbed Herrigan in the chest. “You just see if we’re not buried in cats by the end of the day.”

“What.”

Drip thumped him in the chest once with a snort of disbelief. “Cats. You know, the samurai thing.”

“Drip, no one ever understands what you’re talking about, but today you’ve really outdone yourself.” He snatched his own helmet off the equipment rack and headed towards the door, Drip hurrying to keep up.

“They’re gonna make us do the honorable death thing, Harry, and I don’t wanna go be done in by allergies. No one in Alcatraz has been around a cat in decades, we’re probably all-”

Herrigan smacked himself in the face. “It’s hara-kiri Drip, not hairy kitties. Get in your Waldos people!” He raised his voice to carry through the launching dock. “If you think the Duff isn’t gonna flood this place and dump the subs whether we’re in ’em or not you’re in for a surprise. Eddie won’t be light enough to surface until they’re out!”

“-just the right size to get eaten by a squid or a whale or something, the only reason we don’t is because we stick to the bottom-”

“Get in,” Herrigan muttered, grabbing the loops on the back of Drip’s suit and hoisting him into his salvage sub’s hatch with the ease of long practice.

“-unless the fuel cells give out and drop us straight to the bottom-”

He swung the door shut with an irritated grunt and dogged the hatch shut. A smattering of applause erupted from the handful of other Waldo operators hustling to get in their subs before the launch bay flooded. Herrigan stepped away from Drip’s Waldo and sketched a half-bow. “Gentlemen, I give you silence! Treasure it while you may.”

A quick check of the door seal on the next Waldo over confirmed it was still intact. As Herrigan did so Doug Riggs jogged over to help him in. As he did he jerked his head towards Drip’s sub. “He’s your partner on normal salvage runs, isn’t he? Is he like that all the time?”

“Just when he’s awake and not eating,” Herrigan muttered. Doug and Drip worked different shifts so it wasn’t surprising that Doug didn’t know him that well. “Sometimes he breathes in. I think.”

“Ever considered just gagging him so he won’t drive you nuts?”

Herrigan hesitated, his hand resting on the edge of the hatch. “It’s good luck.”

“What?” Doug’s tone implied that Herrigan might have already gone around the bend.

“It’s like a reverse jinx. You know how you say something bad is going to happen, and then the universe one-ups you?” Doug nodded. “With Drip around he keeps upping the ante so fast the universe can’t find time to actually hit us with anything.”

Doug gave him an unbelieving look. Herrigan shrugged. “At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.”

——–

Duffy raked his fingers through his hair and stared at the balance sheets on his screen.

“Problems?” Gwen asked, leaning back in her chair to catch a glimpse of what was on his monitor.

“Bankruptcy, mostly,” Duffy said with a sigh. “I should have gotten a McClain hull last time in dock.”

“Don’t beat yourself up, boss,” Gwen said with an encouraging smile. “You wanted to pay the crew like you promised. Most people consider that a good thing.”

He cleared his screen with an exasperated snort. “Except now I’m not going to be able to pay anyone anything, because our scrap haul is sitting on the bottom of the ocean and I’m going to go bankrupt trying to get the hull repaired.”

“Look at it this way,” Gwen said, going back to her own monitor. “Even if you did order a new hull we’d have had to ship out long before it could be built or installed. Erin McClain invented a new building material, not a whole new infrastructure.”

Duffy leaned back in his chair and shrugged. “Maybe. But they say she was halfway there, before she died. I just wish the folks who took over EM Ltd. would show half the vision she did and actually get to developing something new.”

“Yeah, well, before you go writing out a letter of protest or something, how about we focus on getting this Erin home in one piece?” Graham said.

Duffy kicked back up in his chair. “What’s gone wrong with my ship now?”

“So far, nothing,” Duffy said. “But we’re under all kinds of stress. I didn’t think of it before, but with the salvage bays and launch bay empty, the most buoyant parts of the ship are the prow and stern. The heaviest part is the flooded compartments-”

“-amidships.” Gwen finished. “It’s like hanging a heavy washer on a string of wire.”

“Except we’re a lot more brittle than wire,” Graham added. “So before we bend too far we’re just going to snap like a twig.”

“You’ve been talking about my ship breaking in half an awful lot today, Graham.”

“Consequence of Eddie‘s design, Captain,” he said with a shrug. “If she were round it’d be like crushing an egg.”

“How do we fix this?” Duffy asked. “Could we just stand the ship on one end, or something?”

“I’m not sure trying that wouldn’t be what does us in,” Graham said slowly. “But I’ll run the numbers.”

“Forgive me if I’m being dense,” Gwen interjected. “But when you’ve got a heavy washer on a wire and you don’t want it dangling about, and you can’t take it off, you hold it up with your hand.”

“So?”

“So, the Waldos are just floating around outside. How about we have them give us a lift?” She pushed up with her palms to show what she meant.

Duffy and Graham looked at her, and then at each other.

——–

“You want us to what?” Herrigan stared at the sub hull through his window, as if staring at the Erin’s Dream long enough would somehow inform her XO of just how crazy he thought she was.

“Give us a boost,” Gwen said, speaking slowly as if to a small child. “The center of the ship isn’t as buoyant as the ends and we’re hurting for it. We need a couple of Waldos to try and grab us amidships and give a nice, gentle push. ”

“Okay…” Doubt was clear in Herrigan’s tone. “How much thrust do you want from us?”

“We’ll work that out once you’re in position. Just start slow.”

“Right,” Herrigan muttered. Then he switched the intercom over to the circuit which would let him talk to the other salvage subs. “You get all that boys?”

“We heard, Harry,” Doug said. “Who do you want to do this? It’s gonna be tricky to pull without tangling our cables.”

“I know it,” Herrigan said, chewing his lip. Waldo salvage subs usually worked in teams of two, connected to their mothership in sequence by cables that served both as safeties against malfunctions and the primary means of communication.

By longstanding tradition Trenchmen subs had done their best to avoid notice by the patrols of surface nations, so radio was something of a taboo outside the deepest parts of the Marianas Trench. Disconnecting the cables would make it impossible to talk to each other. But, while paired Waldos could simply crank in the excess cable between them to avoid getting tangled while performing work in close proximity, with a third Waldo in the mix there was suddenly a major chance of one of the subs getting tangled and breaking something important.

Herrigan sighed. He’d just have to have the three best pilots do the work. “Okay, Doug. I want you to take Fred and Pam and hang off Eddie’s bow. Drip, Tank and I will do the lift.”

Four acknowledgements came back. Herrigan waited for a moment, then keyed his intercom again. “Drip? You get that?”

There was a long pause, long enough that Herrigan was starting to feel very nervous, then a tentative, “Yeah,” came over the speaker. “Yeah, Harry.. I, uh.. I hear you.”

“Drip?” Herrigan gently spun his sub so he could see Drip’s Waldo hanging quietly in the dark water a few hundred feet away. “You okay, buddy?”

“Yeah, fine,” Drip said. Any idiot could tell he was anything but. “It’s just… we’re not on the bottom. You know?”

“The bottom?” Herrigan scrunched up his eyebrows. “What…?” Somewhere in the back of his mind Herrigan remembered something his cousin, a lawman back in the colony, had mentioned. Occasionally people who went out into the ocean got nervous or downright terrified at the idea of that much open space around them. When they got back inside the colony walls some of them would even panic if they wandered onto one of the large concourses the newer sections were built around, throwing fits or rushing into corridors with no regard for who got in the way. Usually Sam wound up running interference for them, assessing a fines as needed and suggesting they stay out of large rooms.

But if a person snapped in the open ocean it could be a lot worse, particularly back in the day when the water around the original penal colony had been mined.

Drip had never shown any signs of panic before, but then they’d always been along the bottom, with Erin’s Dream hovering just a couple of hundred feet overhead and a wrecked ship close at hand. It may have been enough of an enclosure that he hadn’t ever felt nervous before. “Okay, Drip, just relax. We’re going to tuck up to Eddie’s belly and everything’s going t o be just fine. We’ll get up to the surface in no time.”

“Right… surface… that’ll be…”

“Drip?” A little voice in the back of his head pointed out that maybe, just maybe, mentioning the surface of the ocean, which was little more than a thin layer of air between water and space, might not have been the brightest idea. “Come on, man, let’s get up-”

Herrigan cut off with an oath as the nose of Drip’s Waldo suddenly swung downwards and the sub shot off towards the ocean floor leaving a small trail of bubbles in its wake.

“What happened?” Gwen demanded over the intercom.

“Drip just did a Nemo,” Herrigan said, triggering the pumps on his forward ballast tanks. “New plan. Doug, Pam, Tank, push Eddie up to the surface. Fred, spot for ’em.”

“Harry, we’re already far enough from the bottom that we’re not going to have enough cable to reach back down there,” Gwen said. “You need to catch him before he hit’s the end of the line.”

“And do what?”

“Well I thought you would have something in mind for that already.”

There was a muttering on the other end of the line, then the captain’s voice came over the intercom. “Cartwright, if you don’t have any idea how to get Randolph to come to the surface just cut his cable and stay with us. There’s no sense both of you-”

“I think I’m going to need to detach from Erin’s Dream and run on battery power for a while, captain,” Herrigan said pleasantly. “Sorry if you were saying something, you know how that interferes with the comms.”

“Herrigan Cartwright, I swear, if I go to jail just-” The connection with Erin’s Dream cut out with an abrupt snap. Herrigan absently switched the intercom off to save power and switched on his screws. His Waldo was already descending slowly, but odds were Drip was already on the ocean floor. He’d been descending so fast there was a good chance his sub had collided with the bottom, but Waldos were pretty tough and hopefully nothing critical would be damaged.

The entire forward part of Herrigan’s Waldo was a single, convex piece of clear plastic, created using engineering principles that Erin McClain had adapted from mollusks. Unlike Erin’s Dream herself, it was almost state of the art. The huge window usually helped the pilots see everything that was going on during salvage jobs, a handy feature when you were up to your mechanical elbows in old, unstable shipwrecks. In this case, it also gave Herrigan a great view of the ocean around him.

With most of his own running lights off, to make it easier to spot the lights on Drip’s Waldo, Herrigan quickly understood why people might find the open ocean unsettling. The dark water was somehow both oppressive and vast at the same time, as if the deeps were somehow an endless maze and a coming avalanche all rolled into one.

Herrigan frowned and smacked himself on the leg. No good thinking like that, or he’d never manage to find Drip. With a keen eye on his instruments, he carefully navigated the sub down into the depths, following the cable that would lead him to his missing friend.

——–

Forty two minutes after the first alarm sounded the Erin’s Dream broke the surface of the ocean somewhere off the northeastern shore of Australia. There was a tentative thump from the top hatch, then Duffy stuck his head out and sniffed the air tentatively. From behind him, Graham called, “Everything look okay?”

“Yeah.” Duffy pushed the hatch aside and climbed up onto the narrow top deck. “I was just expecting it to be brighter, that’s all.”

Graham pulled himself up and out of the hatch as well, giving the sky a hard look. “It’s weather. The water vapor can’t condense along the outer hull and be channeled back into a reservoir, so instead large formations called clouds-”

“Yes, I’ve heard of the phenomenon,” Duffy said, peering out across the water rather than up at the sky. “Do you see any sign of Cartwright or Randolph?”

“No,” Graham admitted, looking in the other direction, “but I wouldn’t worry. There’s no one better qualified to drag Drip off the ocean floor than Herrigan.”

“Drip?”

Graham gave his captain an amused look. “You’ve never talked to him, have you? James Randolph almost never stops whining. It would keep leaking out of him even if you used a gag.”

“A constant drip, drip, drip,” Duffy said, nodding. “That sounds like Cartwright. Come on, let’s have a look at this hull leak.”

Ten minutes later Graham was shaking his head. “I think we could make a reasonably solid patch for this if we had more material to work with. But we dumped all the scrap we’d collected to make ourselves more buoyant, and I’m not sure I would have trusted it at Trench depth anyways. Maybe if we pulled something off the interior walls of the flooded compartments…”

“Well, think about it but don’t take too long. I don’t want to be on the surface any longer than we have to, no matter how much we’re making history by being here.” Duffy stood half way up, then stopped and peered intently at the water. “On the bright side, maybe when we get home Sam Cartwright won’t throw me in jail on suspicion of murdering my business partner after all.”

Graham followed his line of sight and whistled. “What is that?”

It turned out that it was two Waldo submarines. A large piece of scrap metal had been bent into a collar around the forward viewport of one minisub, so that only a few feet of it were unobstructed. The other submarine clung close by, holding the collar in place with one of it’s manipulator arms. In a few minutes the Waldos were alongside their mothership and Herrigan popped the hatch on his.

“Let’s get some relief pilots out here,” he called. “We need to stow these Waldos, and we can’t do that while I’m holding the blinders in place for Drip. Call Tank or Pam up here and they can bring it in.”

Duffy gave the order and then looked back to Herrigan and shook his head. “Leave it to you to find some way to get a little salvage out of a job as bad as this.”

“Just trying to keep the casualties down,” he said with a shrug. “On the bright side, our scrap load look like it’s still mostly in one place. We could send some Waldos down and collect some of it before the currents scatter it too badly.”

Duffy shook his head. “I don’t know. You’d have to run without a connection back to Eddie.”

“That’s why they’ve got fuel cells on board,” Herrigan said. “Eight hours of run time without needing to recharge. More than enough time to make a couple of trips back and forth.”

“What are we supposed to do with all this scrap you’re bringing back? Eat it?” Graham asked.

“Well I was thinking we could sell it to help cover repair costs.”

“Sell it to who?” Duffy demanded. “We’re thousands of miles from the nearest scrap metal dealer.”

“Not true,” Herrigan countered. “Australia’s only a few hundred miles away.”

“What?!” Duffy and Graham asked in unison.

Herrigan sighed. “Look, I know we’re used to avoiding notice by people on the surface. But think about it. It’s been seventy years since we last heard from the surface at all, and the Marianas Trench Penal Colony wasn’t a widely publicized venture, or so we’re told. A lot of people probably never heard of us or forgot about us. And if they do remember us, the Australia started as a penal colony too, so they’re more likely to be sympathetic.”

“And we know that people from Alcatraz are not the only ones doing deep sea salvage,” Duffy mused.

“It’s an untapped market for us. And we’ve already broken one unwritten rule by surfacing, we might as well go all the way and make contact with someone, don’t you think?” Herrigan shrugged. “If anything, it can’t be more dangerous than drying to drop back to Trench depth with a cut rate patch on my ship.”

“Hey, don’t forget half of it is my ship,” Duffy snapped.

“Right. It’s just something to think about.”

“Really?” Graham asked, incredulous. “Because it sounds like borderline treason to me. Have you forgotten that we’re basically prisoners of the UN? That we’re not even supposed to be on the surface less we cause some sort of global environmental catastrophe? The people up here are insane! The surface is more of a prison for us than the Trench! At least there we can come and go without worrying about being sunk without warning by any navy that decides they have some ordinance to burn through.”

Herrigan laughed. “Kid, prison and opportunity are the exact same thing, just so long as you know how to look. Think about it, Duffy.”

With that he pulled the hatch on his sub closed. Pam was settling herself into Drip’s Waldo while Doug and Tank led their fellow pilot back towards the larger sub’s hatch. Herrigan’s sub was already beginning to dip beneath the waves again.

Graham shook his head. “I know you two are friends and my bosses, but I have to wonder why you work with a guy as crazy as he is.”

“Because he gives me things to think about.” For a long moment Duffy just stared towards the horizon, where the sea met the sky. It was something he had never seen before in his life. Suddenly he turned to Graham with a manic grin and said, “I’ve always wanted to visit Australia.”

With that, he headed back towards the hatch, Graham following mournfully in his wake.

-Fin-