Note to the Reader:
The book in your hands is not intended to be a full story. You will not find a beginning nor end here. Instead, think of this book as a collection of several spoiler-free chapters from The Color of Water and Sky series. There is no new material here. All content collected in this book has already been published. In this format, the book in your hands functions more like an assortment of short stories than anything else.
As a reader, I know it can be hard to commit to a new series. After all, novels can add up and turn out to be expensive investments. The purpose of this book is to give you, the reader, a feel for The Color of Water and Sky before committing to purchasing the series. If you enjoy what you read here, you can purchase the novels with confidence. If you don’t like what you read here, you’ve saved yourself some money.
I certainly hope you enjoy the chapters I’ve selected for this preview book. Chapters included have been taken from three different books in The Color of Water and Sky series: Iris, Kholvaria and Cassidy.
[*- *]Andrew Gates
Dr. Carter Brown
(Chapter originally featured in novel Cassidy)
Carter opened his eyes and looked himself in the mirror. The suit fit him well. He was not accustomed to seeing himself so dressed up. He made sure his tie was straight, then ran his fingers through his hair.
He took a deep breath. This was it. This was the moment he had been waiting for.
Carter grabbed the holographic projector from the sink top and held it firmly in his sweaty hands.
“Here we go,” he said aloud.
The 32-year-old engineer turned and walked out of the men’s room. The black hall outside was bustling with well-dressed men and women, quickly making their way through the office complex. Carter tried not to get caught up in the excitement of it all. He held his projector firmly in hand and proceeded to the committee room. It did not take long to get there. He pressed on the thick door and hastily proceeded through.
Some of the elected officials, or EOs, were already present. Their chairs faced him as he entered the room. A massive crimson flag hung above their heads, adding a bit of color to this otherwise dark room.
A young Navy guard in a white suit approached him.
“Name, sir?” the man asked. He looked about 20, not much older than Carter was when he first enlisted.
“Dr. Carter Brown,” he answered. He pulled out his ID. “I am here for the hearing.”
“My apologies, Dr. Brown. I did not know it was you. I expected someone…”
The Navy man was silent. He simply motioned to an empty chair behind a desk facing the EOs.
“Please,” he said.
Carter followed the guard’s order and took a seat behind the desk. A glass of water was already waiting for him. He instinctively took a sip as a few more EOs arrived and took their seats. It was not long before Deborah Otto, Chairwoman of the Oceanic Committee, arrived. Her bright white suit stood out in the world of black.
She took a seat and moved the microphone to her mouth.
“Good morning, everyone,” she said. Her voice echoed throughout the room. “Thank you all for coming. I know it is never easy to come back to work after the New Year celebration.”
This had been the first day back to work for most of the city following the bicentennial, but not for Carter. He had worked tirelessly over the last few days, making sure everything was right for his presentation.
“I would like to especially welcome our guest today, Dr. Carter Brown,” Otto continued.
Carter was not sure how to respond to this introduction. He simply waved back. He felt the EOs glare back at him. He must have been doing it wrong.
“The purpose of this hearing today is to evaluate Dr. Brown’s proposal to grant funding for the testing of his new exploratory ocean vessel. We will hear testimony firsthand from Dr. Brown himself and open the floor to questioning from members of this committee.”
Otto paused and looked to her colleagues, as if waiting for confirmation to proceed.
“Are we all ready?” she asked.
There were nods all around.
“Very well,” Otto said, turning back to face the room again. “I see no reason to delay. Dr. Brown, I look forward to hearing what you have to say. The floor is yours.”
Here it goes.
Carter placed the holographic projector on the table and stood up from his chair. He felt nervous, but he had rehearsed this a thousand times. As long as he recited it as he had practiced, everything was going to work.
“Year 200, Atlantic Federation calendar,” he began. It was the perfect opening line; snappy, relevant and attention grabbing.
Carter cleared his throat. His line worked. All eyes were on him.
“I can hardly believe what year it is. It seemed like just yesterday, we were celebrating 190. Time never seems to progress the way I expect. To think that two full centuries have passed since the bombing of the surface,” he continued. With every word, he felt himself grow more and more confident. “The Atlantic Station is our home now, this extraordinary result of years of brilliant engineering. For us, this is the only world we have ever known, and for good reason. Don’t get me wrong, I am glad we live here. Humanity is free to live without exposure to the planet’s toxic surface. This place, all corniness aside, is the future.”
There were a few chuckles here and there. He wondered how many times they had heard the phrase “this is the future”.
“But still,” he continued, “at times I’m sure we have all wondered what secrets the surface still holds. Something has to have been up there.”
Carter instinctively pointed to the ceiling. He had not rehearsed that, but it just felt right.
“Many of you know that I used to be a Navy engineer. Years ago, while searching through old Navy achieves, I came across the ramblings of a mad scientist who claimed that the surface was populated by a race of intelligent crab people.”
More chuckles came from the EOs.
“Of course, this was nonsense, but that’s not the point. These ramblings, as crazy as they may be, got me thinking: what if something intelligent had survived the bombing?”
The chuckles stopped. The room was quiet. It seemed his question had done the trick.
“This question haunted my mind like a sickness. I could hardly sleep for weeks. My imagination was full of theories, some just as wild as the mad scientist’s. And so,” Carter continued, “I decided to do something about it.”
He turned to the holographic projector on the table and activated it. Instantly, a 3D image of a submarine concept filled the room. It spun ever so slightly to give viewers a look at all sides of the craft.
“I present to the Oceanic Committee, the first submarine since the Descent capable of shallow water exploration. Finally, we will have the proper tools to answer that great question of the surface. More durable than a simple probe, smaller than the Nautilus E10 and cheaper to produce than even the Ray 4T-80,” he explained. “Ladies and gentlemen of the committee, if you agree to fund this project, you are investing in answers to world’s greatest mysteries. Thank you.”
Carter sat down and powered off the hologram. He felt a smile form on his face. His short pitch had gone just as well as he’d hoped.
The room was quiet now. The EOs simply sat in silence, as if they were each waiting for another to speak. Otto adjusted in her chair, cleared her throat and eventually broke the awkward quietness.
“Thank you, Dr. Brown. As you can imagine, I have a few questions about your project. Firstly, if we were to fund such a project, what kind of timeline are we looking at?”
Carter leaned forward and spoke clearly into the mic.
“Assuming it all goes to plan, we can have a prototype developed by the end of summer. We can begin testing shortly thereafter.”
“And how long will the testing phase take?”
“That is harder to answer,” he explained. “It is difficult to predict an accurate testing period for projects like these. Sometimes it takes a few months, sometimes a few years.”
“I see,” the Chairwoman said. She adjusted in her seat again. “And how many crewmen would be needed to operate this craft?”
“Two, ma’am. One pilot and one co-pilot.”
Otto leaned back in her chair and let out an exhale.
“I must say, Dr. Brown, what you’re selling here seems quite impressive. If you can actually deliver something like you’re describing, that would be a remarkable achievement.”
Carter smiled. Those words were like music to his ears.
“I am glad to hear it,” he replied, hardly able to contain his excitement. “Trust me, I can deliver.”
“I’m sure my esteemed colleagues have many questions of their own. We shall move onto them in a moment, but before we do, I have just one final question for you, Dr. Brown. If your project gets funded and you actually build this thing… what would you call it?”
“I would name it something bold, something catchy, something that evokes the feeling of adventure,” Carter responded. “I would call it Cassidy.”
__]Capt. Sara Gessetti
(Chapter originally featured in novel Iris)
Darkness was all that ever shone through the thick layer of glass separating the pressurized hull of the submarine and the great deep ocean beyond its walls. Darkness was all that the captain of this small two man crew had ever known.
Sara leaned her face closer to the glass, hoping to see anything. But there was nothing to see, nothing but darkness.
“I don’t understand. What’s the point of this glass if there’s nothing to see?” asked Damien, Sara’s co-pilot. She heard him adjust himself in his cramped foam seat and straighten out his thick warm Navy jacket.
“Supposedly there is more to see up top once we get closer to the light,” Sara responded, still searching through the glass barrier for some evidence to support her words.
“Nothing our sensors couldn’t detect,” Damien retorted.
Sara knew he was right. They had been using the sub’s motion sensors and sonar this entire time. It was easy to navigate the entire way without the window. If anything, the window was a safety hazard. If something were to collide with the sub, the window would be the first to crack and depressurize the entire cabin. But Sara did not feel like challenging the wisdom of the sub’s designers so she kept quiet.
“Just do your job,” she said, trying to change the subject.
Damien grunted and adjusted in his seat again.
For a moment there was nothing but utter silence as the two sat in the cramped cabin. Sara knew that Damien was not enjoying himself. That was plain enough to tell even when he sat behind her, out of her line of sight. The sub was barely large enough for two. Its dull unpainted metallic inside was nothing pleasing to the eye and the heat was like nothing they were used to. But Sara did not want to display her own negative opinion of the vessel. She was in charge. It was best to hide her discomfort in front of her co-pilot.
A captain must appear in control, she thought to herself.
Sweat dripped down from her hands onto the black yoke of the sub. It was beginning to get slippery. Sara reached down into the pocket of her clean white Navy jacket and took out her pleather gloves. Although they would only make her hands warmer, she hoped they would help with the sweat.
A captain needs a firm grip, she reminded herself as she slipped them on.
Damien watched with confused eyes.
“Damn Sara, it’s got to be a million degrees in here. Hands cold?”
“No, not cold,” she replied. “Just wet.” Her eyes quickly glanced to the altimeter above the yoke. “Watch our ascent. Let’s make sure we’re not rising too quickly.”
“We’re fine, Sara. We’d feel it if we weren’t,” he responded.
Sara knew he was right but she felt uneasy anyway. Although she had gone out on patrol runs dozens of times, this was a new sub with a new co-pilot and a new mission. It would not hurt to be a bit overly cautious; especially since this was the highest anyone from the Atlantic had traveled since the Descent. Soon they would be entering new territory, a new height unvisited for years.
“How close are we to the line, Damien?” she asked. “I can’t remember the depth.”
“Previously the line was set at 300 meters.”
Sara glanced at the altimeter. The analog indicator bounced around 341 meters. They were almost there.
“Hard to believe how fast we got here,” Damien said. “You’d think people would go up here more often.”
“It’s not safe,” Sara responded. “The change in pressure makes it difficult for most vehicles to travel this high. It’s hard to make a machine that can travel in deep ocean, medium ocean and shallow ocean all at once.”
“Pssh,” Damien said as he shrugged. He adjusted in his seat once again. “They all used to do it once. How do you think we got down here?”
Damien was starting to get sassy. Sara was not fond of this kind of attitude but she was relieved to know that they were almost done. She knew she could not take his brashness for long. At least he’s been good until now.
“We had more resources in those days. Plus we were desperate. It’s amazing what people can engineer when necessity calls.”
Sara glanced towards the window once again, hoping to see a glimmer of light. But she still saw only darkness. If it weren’t for the dim lighting of the hull, she knew she would see nothing more than her own reflection.
The captain imagined how she must have looked. She was covered in sweat and stuffed into a warm white jacket, a size too small for her already small body. Clothing sizes ran small for everybody in the Navy. She assumed they did that on purpose to promote fitness. If you gain any weight, you won’t even fit in your clothes. That must’ve been the Navy’s thinking, she thought.
“It’s getting warmer,” Damien said.
Sara knew he was right. She could feel it too.
“Do you mind if I unzip this damn jacket?” he asked.
Sara turned in her chair and looked back at her co-pilot, studying him to make sure he was not bluffing. He was a young man, probably about four or five years younger than her, though she could not be sure. He had already removed his cap and placed it on the foam armrest of the chair. His tightly trimmed blond hair was dripping with sweat and his cool eyes stood out in contrast to his bright pink face.
“Permission granted,” she said, trying to maintain her professionalism. She turned forward again, facing the wall of darkness before her. “Your face is flushed. You’re getting hot.”
She heard him unzip the jacket, take it off and set it down on the armrest with the cap. He let out a sigh of relief as if he had just felt comfortable for the first time in hours.
“You don’t look so good yourself, Sara,” he said. “Maybe you should do the same.”
“Is this just a way for you to see me without my clothes on?” she asked.
Damien chuckled. She imagined a great big grin on his face.
“Not at all. If you could see yourself you’d agree with me. There’s no sense bluffing, Captain. You don’t have to act professional to impress me. It’s not like I’m going to report you. Plus who the fuck would care anyway? Like the officers would even give a shit,” he replied.
Putting up with Damien’s sass was one thing but his choice of words was another. Sara was never a big fan of foul language. It was uncultured and uncivilized. This was the Navy, not a gang.
“Point taken, Damien, but I could do without the expletives. Let’s just do that for my sake, okay?” she responded, giving up with trying to be professional at this point.
“Deal,” he said. “300 meters by the way. We’ve just crossed the line.”
Sara glanced at the altimeter. He was right. This was unexplored territory from here on out.
“We’re setting our own line now,” she added.
Taking Damien’s advice, she removed her cap and set it beside her. She reached back and undid her tight bun, letting her sweaty government-black hair fall down over her pale, flour colored face. She quickly brushed it aside so she could see and unzipped her jacket.
“I see you’ve taken my advice,” said Damien happily.
She removed her gloves and placed them into her jacket pocket and then removed the entire jacket altogether, revealing her grey tank top pressed tightly against her body thanks to all the sweat.
“Wow! Now there’s something to look at!” Damien added enthusiastically.
She felt his eyes on her, annoyed. She was a fit 30-year-old Navy woman with Italian ancestry. Even here, far away from civilization, she was still not safe from men’s taunts.
“I don’t need this from you right now, Damien. How old are you?” she asked.
“What? No, not that, Captain. Look!” She heard him lean forward in his chair behind her as if he was pointing forward.
That was when Sara saw it too. Damien was not watching her, but rather a small glimmer of white light through the window. Finally, something to see in the darkness.
Sara quickly glanced down at the monitor, studying the motion sensor. Nothing was detected. Whatever she saw was too far away. She looked over at the sonar instead.
“Do you know what it is?” Damien asked.
“I don’t know. It’s too far away for the motion sensor.”
The sonar started to ping. One ping. Then another. Then another. An image began to fill up on the screen. It was small, probably nothing worth worrying about, but certainly bigger than a fish.
“Whatever it is, it looks closer through the window than it does on the screen,” he said.
Sara looked up at the window again. He was right. Whatever it was, the light seemed to be right in front of them. But according to the reading, this object was over 200 meters away.
“Should we be using passive sonar?” Damien asked.
“Active sonar is fine. I doubt it’s hostile. We’re too far from the other stations. Nobody would attack us out here.”
Damien adjusted in his seat again. She could hear the foam pressing up against the heavy weight of his body as he leaned forward.
“But what if you’re wrong?” he asked. “When’s the last time we’ve heard any word from the other two stations? Maybe they’re out here. Maybe they’ve been watching us up here this whole time. What if we’ve just been sitting right below these little fuckers?”
She turned and made eye contact with her co-pilot, her dark black eyes piercing his light ones. Sara did not have time for his paranoia and nonsense.
“What did I say about the expletives, Damien?” she asked with a stern tone of voice.
Damien leaned back again and ran his fingers through his short hair. He exhaled and nodded his head.
“Yes, yes, sorry,” he replied. He hated being silenced like this. Sara could sense the frustration in his voice, but she needed to maintain a level of leadership and control.
Sara turned around again and studied the monitors once more. They were moving closer and closer to the mysterious object. She returned her attention to the window. As they neared, the light grew brighter and brighter. She could start to make out its shape from here: a perfect sphere.
“We’re at 250 meters below sea level. Let’s watch it,” Damien said, bringing Sara’s focus back to the altimeter.
They were rising too quickly. The captain was letting this mysterious object distract her from her job. She was surprised she had not noticed the change in pressure.
“Let’s stay at this level for a while,” she said. “Keep it at 250.”
Sara waved her hand in front of the touch screen monitor to her right to wake it up. Lights flickered on. She tapped the icon for the Meganet and waited as the program loaded.
“What are you doing?” Damien asked, watching her.
“I’m loading up the Meganet. We need to contact the station, tell them about this orb,” she responded.
The mission was supposed to be simple: to test the new sub prototype at 200 meters below sea level. This was one for the scientists, not the Navy. But the engineers had no sailors, only designers. Sara and Damien were never supposed to find anything up here, especially not mysterious glowing orbs.
It only took a few moments for the program to load. The sub had its own direct connection to the Meganet in case of emergency. As the program’s icons loaded up, Sara typed in the code to her commander in charge.
“It’s giving off a lot of heat,” Damien said, distracting Sara from the program. “I’m reading water temperatures coming from the orb at 500 degrees Celsius. Whatever that is, it’s boiling the ocean water.”
“Generating steam on the surface,” Sara stated to herself under her breath.
After a few moments of dialing, the image of Commander Grey appeared on screen. A fitting name for a man in his 50’s whose hair and beard had long turned grey. He resembled the ideal military man. He had a strong, wise face and always looked sure of himself. He stared back at Sara through the camera, surprised to be getting her call.
“Captain Gessetti,” the commander said, standing tall in his polished white uniform. Sara suddenly remembered that she had removed her own uniform. She hoped he would not mind, but rather doubted it.
“Commander Grey, hold on while I move your image to the main screen.”
Sara darkened the glass window in front of her and activated the digital projection, expanding the images from the touchscreen monitor onto the surface of the window. His face now lit up the entire cabin of the sub like an omnipotent god.
“That’s better. Now I can see you more clearly,” she said, looking up at him.
Commander Grey nodded and studied the inside of the cabin, most likely taking note of his two pilots out of uniform.
“What is this about, Captain?” he asked.
Before Sara could continue, Damien cut in and responded.
“Sir, we’ve reached 250 feet below sea level just outside of the Puerto Rico Trench. But we’ve encountered something. Some sort of unidentified object,” he said.
Commander Grey appeared annoyed.
“I asked your commander, not you, Saljov. You’re supposed to be ascending to 200 meters and returning. This is not meant to be an exploratory mission.”
Sara looked back at Damien and gave him an annoyed expression, then turned and faced the projection of her commander again.
“I apologize for Saljov’s interruption, sir, but he is right about the object. This object we discovered is concerning. It appears to be an orb of light and it is giving off extraordinary levels of heat, boiling the water around it. I can only predict this unidentified object must be manmade. I can’t think of anything natural that gives off that much energy. How do you want us to proceed?” she replied, hoping that she got the message across while still behaving appropriately.
“Does the object appear hostile?” asked the commander.
“We have it in our sights through the window, sir,” Damien added, out of turn once again.
“On screen,” the commander requested.
Sara tapped the appropriate buttons to flip the camera around so that Commander Grey saw the same thing that they did. At this point the orb was so close that its bright light was almost blinding.
“Okay Captain, flip it back before we both go blind.”
Sara flipped the camera again and the commander’s face filled up the screen.
“Well that’s certainly something,” replied Grey. “Get as close to it as you can and take a scan. Proceed with caution and report back to us once you’re finished. I want this kept top secret. You understand? Your orders have changed. Get in, scan the device and report back to us. This is now a scouting mission. The scientists can test their depths later.”
“Roger that,” Sara replied.
“Roger,” added Damien.
“Oh and Sara, try to display some professionalism. Just because you’re far from home base doesn’t mean you can swim around in your bra. This is the Navy, not a colored zone.”
And with Grey’s final words, the screen went blank as he hung up. She knew he would say something about the uniform, but was surprised he referred to a tank top as a bra. Sara turned off the digital projection and the touchscreen monitor with it. The light from the orb came into the window once again, casting shadows every which way inside the sub.
The captain had to hold her left hand up above her eyes just to see forward. She turned towards the window controls and searched for a button she never expected to use. As she reached up and pressed it, she began to feel even hotter.
So this is where all that damn heat was coming from.
As her fingers left the button, a light shield came down and covered the front of the window, making it much easier to see. Ironic. Just a few moments ago she welcomed the light, but now she wanted nothing more than to return to the darkness.
Whatever it was, it was the brightest thing she had ever seen. It must be artificial, she thought. There was nothing she knew of in nature that could produce such light. Perhaps Damien had been right. Is it a device from another station? If so, what is it doing here so close to the Atlantic Station? Too many questions, not enough answers.
She glanced down at her instruments. They were nearing the object. Only 70 meters away now. It appeared massive through the glass in front of them but it was hard to tell what was solid and what was simply light.
While she focused on steering the craft, she quickly turned back and looked at her co-pilot.
“Run a scan on the object while I get us close. See how big it is,” she said.
Sara pulled back on the yoke, raising the nose of the craft. The scanner was on the bottom of the sub. If they wanted any intel on the object, they needed to be right on top of it. The sudden change in angle caused her to become a bit dizzy at first but she shook it off and stared straight forward, using the window’s visibility to guide her.
“I’ve got it,” Damien responded. “Didn’t take long. The object is surprisingly small. Only two meters across in all directions. It’s a perfect sphere. Honestly this is pretty fucking weird.” He quickly caught himself. “Oh, sorry about the expletive, Captain.”
“No, don’t worry about it, Damien. You’re right. It is pretty weird,” she answered. At last they could agree on something.
The black surface of the yoke began to get warm. Sara let go for a few seconds and placed her hands back on the controls again. When she placed them back on, she noticed the controls had already grown significantly warmer, almost burning her hand.
“It’s going to get really hot in here,” she warned. “Better put some gloves on.”
She turned back to her jacket again and pulled the gloves out of her pocket, quickly putting them on one by one.
“Already on it,” Damien answered from behind her. She could hear him doing the same.
They were quickly closing in on the object. As they looked out the window, it appeared as if they were already on top of it now. A vast sea of light lit up underneath them like nothing any of them had ever seen before.
“How close are we to the center of this light?” she asked.
“The object is still a few meters ahead. We’re almost there.”
Sara checked the altimeter. 220 meters below sea level. They were so close to reaching the assigned altitude. They might be able to accomplish both tasks at the same time.
Whatever this object was, it was odd that it was so high up and close to the surface. As far as Sara was aware, no one had journeyed this far up in years.
And why is it heating the water? It must be used for steam, she told herself again. But she tried to put these thoughts out of her mind. These were merely suppositions. She was part of the Navy, not a scientist. It was her job to act, not to question.
“Focus, Sara,” she told herself out loud.
“What was that?” asked Damien.
Sara did not realize she had spoken aloud. She quickly put her hand over her mouth, embarrassed.
“Nothing. How close are we?” she replied.
The vessel continued forward. It seemed like an eternity.
“Almost there… almost there… and… now. Okay, full stop. We’ve reached the object. We are directly above it,” Damien responded as he monitored the data in front of him.
Sara brought the sub to a full stop and wiped the sweat from her face as it poured down into her dark eyes.
“Okay. Begin the scan.”
There were a few seconds of silence followed by the sounds of button pressing. As Damien began the scan, Sara waited and stared out into the vast light below them. Now that it was safe to look at through the light shield, she studied it closely.
Growing up, she had heard stories of a world of light filling an endless ocean where each step brought you closer and closer to a great fiery ball of whiteness. There, one could go up forever and never come down. One could stand in a great field of green, staring up into the colorless void above them. And if you stood for too long, the light of the sea above the water would darken your skin with colors of brown or red.
She did not know if these stories were true. Many people had debated the topic for years. Every scientist and historian had their own opinion on the matter. But she chose to believe the stories. The idea always pleased her. She liked knowing that there was another sea out there, one with no top. She liked knowing that the world above was bigger than the one she had known. If this small orb below her was just a taste of the great orb in the sea above the water, then she could not imagine the beauty of what lied above.
“It’s so beautiful,” she said.
“What’s that?” Damien asked.
She felt transfixed by the light. She wondered if Damien felt the same.
“The light,” she said. “Have you ever seen anything like it?”
“I haven’t,” Damien replied. “That’s the point. That’s why we’re scanning this thing. Speaking of which, it’s scanning now. Results should be coming in shortly.”
Apparently he did not share her enthusiasm.
Suddenly there was a great noise below them. So far the object had remained relatively soundless, but now it was like a powerful engine starting up.
“Do you hear that?” she asked.
“No life signs detected. It’s definitely artificial though. It’s just a big battery producing heat. That’s all it’s doing. The heat seems to be moving directly upward in some sort of artificial channel or current. Our sub must be off to the side, just barely out of the path of the channel. The real heat seems to be relatively contained to the surface of the object and to the channel. At its hottest points, it’s coming in at 800 degrees Celsius,” he replied, reading the data and ignoring her question. Suddenly he leaned forward in his chair and his tone of voice changed. He sounded more rushed now, more urgent. “But it’s moving now. I think the scan must’ve woken it up,” Damien said.
“What’s moving? The current?” she asked.
“No Captain. The orb! It’s changing.”
The sound grew louder.
Sara looked down at the readings. Sure enough the orb was changing shape. A small hole or cavern seemed to be opening on its surface. Whatever it was, it was hollow.
“Something is opening up,” she said as she watched the data on the screen.
“We should get out of here,” Damien responded. “To hell with the scan.”
Sara turned and glared at him. She had been glad that he had focused for a moment but it seemed his paranoia had returned. This was the last thing she needed right now. They were Navy, not cautious scientists. They had their orders.
“We stay and finish the job, Damien. Hold it together for a few more seconds. The scan is almost done. We can do this and reach 200 meters. We can complete both assignments and be out,” she replied, keeping him in his place.
But this time, he did not submit.
“Sara, are you mad? This thing is changing. What is in that door? What is coming out?” he asked.
Right as the words left Damien’s lips, Sara looked down into the sea of light and made out an object emerging from the hole. It was dark, whatever it was, and the contrast made it easy to see the shape of the object as it emerged. It was an object she had seen before, and one that she did not wish to see right now.
“It’s a muzzle!” she screamed. “The orb has activated a weapon!”
“Energy readings are picking up,” Damien responded. “I mean, more than they already were. I think our scan activated its defense systems.”
Sara grabbed the yoke firmly with two hands and increased speed, propelling the vessel forward.
“Evasive maneuvers!” she hollered. “We’re getting out of here!”
“Temperature increase!” Damien yelled. “The orb is getting hotter.”
Sara looked down through the glass. A bright shade of orange emerged from the inside of the cannon. Not the orb, she thought, the weapon.
For a moment all sound stopped, save for the deep breathing of the crew members. Sara had heard of the calm before the storm. She used to hear old hardened captains speak of it, a feeling of calmness and quiet rushing over you before diving into terror. Was this that proverbial calm? If so, she had always expected it to feel differently. This was no calm. It was suspense.
Before any of them expected it, a fiery orange orb of plasma erupted out of the cannon’s barrel and smashed into the bottom of the sub, shaking it fiercely. Sara held onto the arms of her chair as her uniform jacket slid off.
The sub’s monitors and artificial lights flickered off and then on again. Sara glanced back, making sure Damien was okay. To her surprise, he was more composed than ever. His eyes were locked on the readings, carefully monitoring everything that was happening. She quickly turned forward again, looking at her own controls.
“Systems still nominal,” she said.
“The blast from that plasma knocked us up another six meters. We have severe hull damage, Captain, and the bottom sensor is completely fried. I am getting no readings.”
“We have to get out of here,” Sara replied. “That thing is going to hit us again. We need to go down and get back to base.”
Suddenly another salvo. This time neither of them even saw the plasma before it smashed into them. The hull shook and Sara’s head banged against the yoke, accidentally moving the sub’s nose down into a steep dive for a moment before she pulled it back up.
“The hull can’t take much more of this!” Damien hollered. “We should bring weapons systems online!”
Sara knew that fighting was not an option. This may have been a Navy vessel, but it was a prototype. They had been briefed extensively on the piloting systems of the craft but had been given only a small overview of the weapons systems, not enough information to defend themselves.
“We can’t risk it. We have to go back to base! We have to get out of here!” she said.
Her eyes glanced to the altimeter once again. 198.
“Sara, why don’t you listen? I’m right. Listen to me, Sara,” Damien cried.
Sara pressed down on the yoke. She was taking this ship down. She did not need any more of Damien’s advice. But as she thought on his words, it slowly occurred to her that Damien’s advice might not be the worst option. After all, he had been right about everything so far. He had been right about the sonar, right about the object being hostile, even right about this fucking heat.
Sara leveled out the ship and took a deep breath. She knew it in her heart. He was right. They had to stop and fight. There was no way they could last much longer.
Suddenly another hit rocked the hull and the interior lights went out, this time for good. A large crack began to form on the glass wall before her. The first to go, just as I thought, she thought to herself.
“Fuck!” Damien cried.
“What is it? Are you hurt?” Sara asked.
“No. That last damn blast took out our weapons systems. Look!” he replied.
Sara glanced down at the monitor. Although the lights were out, the control screens were still running. Sure enough Damien was right. All weapons were offline.
“Fuck,” she said. “That’s it. We have to go down. Get as deep as we can.”
She brushed her dark hair back, clearing the view for her eyes.
“We can’t go down!” Damien debated. “With all the damage we’ve sustained, the depth will crack the ship.”
“So what do you suggest? Just continue forward? We’ll get torn apart by the gun!” she said.
“No,” Damien responded with a certain cleverness to his voice. It was as if he had saved the perfect solution until the end. “We go up.”
Sara froze for a second. Her eyes quickly darted to the altimeter and then back to the window. They were 193 meters below sea level. As far as she was aware, this was it. This was the highest anyone had ever been.
“Think about it, Sara. We are closer to the surface than we are to the bottom. Much closer,” he explained, convincingly.
Sara knew it. He was right. Going down was suicide. They had no other choice. They had to go up.
She pulled back on the yoke, angling the vessel up as another blast hit them. With the combined force of the blast and the direction of the sub’s motion, this one pushed them up even further than any of the rest.
“We’re getting out of range,” he said. “The blasts aren’t as powerful now.”
Suddenly the emergency alarm began to sound, shattering the quietness of the sub.
“Warning, hull breach,” the calm artificial female voice said. “Warning, hull breach.”
The words were repeated over and over.
“Warning, hull breach. Warning, hull breach. Warning, hull breach.”
Sara looked around, searching for the hull breach. She could not see it but she felt warm water filling up around her feet.
“Lord, I wish that bitch would shut up!” stated Sara angrily.
Damien laughed. She imagined a big grin on his face.
“I see you’ve thrown your distaste for expletives right out the window,” he said jokingly.
Sara couldn’t believe it. This was not the time for humor.
“We’ll both soon be thrown out this window if you don’t help me steer this thing,” she replied.
Another hit rattled the hull. The water filled in higher.
They were climbing fast, maybe too fast, but she would rather be too fast than too slow.
This was the closest Sara had ever felt to death. She always knew the day would come, but she never believed it to be now. Funny how death sneaks up on you.
Suddenly it occurred to her that all this might be for nothing. If she and Damien died here today, no one at the station would know about the cannon. She could not let that happen. She had to get the word out.
She turned to her right and moved her hand above the touch screen, but nothing happened. The screen remained black.
She turned and looked forward again. They were very far from the orb now, but light was still shining in the water. It soon occurred to her that the light was not coming from below. It was coming from above.
“The sea above the water,” she said aloud. “The light from above.”
The hull rocked again as another blast hit them. The window cracked again and water began to spill in from the front. There must have been another hole somewhere.
“We’re running out of time, Sara!” Damien shouted.
“I know! I know! I’m taking her up as fast as she can go!”
It was true. The captain pulled back on the yoke as much as she could. It was dangerous, especially now that the hull had been breached. But she wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. She wanted to see the light. She wanted to see the sea above the water.
Years ago someone had taught her the word, but she could not remember it right now. She was too stressed to remember such trivial details. But she yearned for it, whatever it was called. She was so close to reaching it.
Only 128 meters now, she thought.
She still needed to get a message out. Her touchscreen was broken and therefore so was her access to the Meganet. But perhaps there was another way to leave a message.
“Damien, do you know Morse code?” Sara asked.
“Morse code? Of course,” he replied. All Navy sailors were required to learn it in case of emergencies like this.
“I want you to send a message down to the station. Send it now. Tell them where we are. Tell them what happened here. Tell them everything,” she explained.
“Roger,” he replied.
Water was touching her knees now. Slowly she began to urinate, not even thinking. It did not matter anyway. Soon the water level would be up her to waist and the urine would just wash away with the rest of it.
More cracks appeared on the window. It would not last much longer.
“Come on, come on!” She said. How fast can this thing go?
It had been a while since the last blast. Perhaps they were out of range, but Sara did not care. She only cared about one thing now. She wanted to see the light.
The water level rose higher. It came up against her crotch now, mixing with the urine in her pants.
The dial on the altimeter spun faster than she had ever seen. 100 meters. 90 meters. 80 meters.
Suddenly the window shattered completely. Shards of glass flew towards them. Her first instinct was to inhale, breathe as much as she could before she got swept away by the current. But the pressure would kill her at this depth.
Exhale, she remembered. You must exhale until you reach the surface or you will die.
Sara undid her seatbelt and leaned forward, pressing her face into the wall of water that approached her. There was no time to stop and wait for her co-pilot. She simply embraced the water head-on, kicking off the back of her foam seat.
Soon she was separated from the sub, floating freely outside it. She exhaled as slowly as she could. Exhale too quickly and I’ll run out of air.
The salt in the water hurt her eyes, but she kept them open. She angled her head up and faced the light coming from above, kicking as hard as she could.
Humans are buoyant. The water will help carry me, she reminded herself.
Sara could feel the weight of the sub behind her, slowly falling back towards the depths. She did not even know if Damien had escaped. But there was no time to look back. She had to look up. She had to keep going.
Her breath was running thin. She had little left. Her head became light. Her kicks grew weaker.
Come on, she said to herself. You have to see the light. You have to! She tried to remember the word but could not remember it. She had known it once. She heard it when she heard the stories of the sea above the water. It was short and beautiful. But what was it?
Fish swarmed around her. For a brief time, that made her smile. She did not know the first thing about fish and could not name a single one. But this was a good sign. These were habitable waters. She could see them in the light from above. She could make out their shapes, their colors.
Almost there, she thought. She could feel the pressure changing in her head. She kept swallowing, re-equalizing as she exhaled. But her breath grew thinner and thinner. She would not last much longer. Go, she told herself. Go! You must go!
Suddenly the light grew brighter. It was closer. She knew it. She could feel the light touching her. She began to kick harder and faster, anything to get to the top.
And then, suddenly, everything stopped. She could go up no higher. Her head broke the water and appeared to be stuck against some sort of invisible force pulling her down. The sea above her was brighter and clearer than anything she had ever seen in her life. Puffs of white smoke dotted the ocean’s roof. A hole of bright light shone through the center of the colorless vastness. To her surprise, her eyes no longer stung from the salt. It felt as if she was back in a pressurized hull with air. But unfortunately, she could not hold her breath any longer. Her arms and legs flailed about. She tried to climb, tried to go higher, but she could not. This was it. This was as high as she could go.
So close, she thought. If only this barrier had not been in the way, whatever it is. If only she could keep climbing up.
She knew now that she could not go any further. This was it. She had gone as high as she could. Sara closed her eyes, looked up and opened her mouth, ready to take in the salty water. But nothing came. No water, no salt, nothing. Breathable air filled her starved lungs.
Suddenly she realized that this was no water. This was the surface. She had made it.
That’s when the forgotten word came back to her.
“Sky,” she said aloud. She stared up at the sea above the water. “This is the sky.”
For years darkness was all she ever knew. But now she saw only light.
Ms. Iris Vitneskja
(Chapter originally featured in novel Iris)
Iris stared at the face in the mirror. It was as thin, scrawny and as pale as anyone else’s down here in the station. She pressed her fingers against her cheek and watched as it made a small pink mark. Dragging her fingers down, the pink faded into her skin only a moment later.
Why should I dress myself up? She looked into the cool eyes reflecting back at her. Iris was never fond of makeup, nor dressing up at all for that matter. It wasn’t because she didn’t care about her image. Otherwise she never would have spent the money to dye her light hair black. No, Iris was never fond of makeup simply because she never saw the need for it. Makeup and pretty clothes were just too much effort. If it were up to her, she would spend her entire life in sweatpants.
She sighed and closed her eyes as she pulled her white t-shirt up above her head. She could smell the strong scent of her armpits. Iris did not normally use deodorant, but today she decided it was best to put some on. She bent down to the cabinet beneath her sink and pulled out a tube she had probably not touched for a month.
Today was the big day. All her years of studying had finally paid off. It was convenient that the teacher before her retired when he did since it meant the job opened up right when she needed it. Good luck so far, she thought. Straight out of school and a job was already waiting for her.
She put the deodorant tube away after sliding it up and down under her arms for a good five seconds and walked back into her bedroom. She pulled a light green blouse out of her closet and stared at it for a while. Does green make a good first impression? This was not her strong suit, but her instincts said no. Iris decided against it and reached for a red blouse instead. Red was safe in her mind. No color was bolder.
This was not the first day of school for the students, merely the orientation for teachers. School would not begin for another week but the teachers were expected to be ready by that time and well acquainted with one another. She had already met the principle during her initial interview and had been in contact with him a few times since. She also knew the head of the history department, also from the interview. But apart from those two and a few administrators she doubted she would see much of again, she knew no one. Preparing for the first day of school as a teacher was surprisingly similar to what she remembered as a student. Although she knew she would make friends eventually, she obsessed over making the right first impression.
As she reached the last button of her blouse, she searched around the room to see what else she could add to her outfit. It was then that it occurred to her she was still in her sweatpants. She laughed to herself, finding her own obliviousness comical. She looked around again, this time thinking of something to wear on her bottom half. Iris was not partial to wearing skirts, or anything particularly feminine for that matter. But this was the first day of school. If there were ever a time to wear it, it was now.
“I suppose I should look like a lady,” she said to herself aloud.
She moved to her closet again and removed a thin black skirt that came down below her knees. She unzipped the back, pulled it up and zipped it up again. It fit tightly around her waist and hugged her stomach.
Iris walked barefoot over to the bathroom once more. She felt uncomfortable by the restricted range of leg motion. She tried to put it out of her mind, hoping that if she ignored the oddness, it would become normal.
Next came putting on makeup. This was Iris’s least favorite part.
She hoped she would not have to do this every day from now on. Just for the first few weeks, she thought. Then she could go back to waking up an hour later. By then she would have made her first impression with both the teachers and the students.
When Iris finally emerged from the bathroom, her face was coated in just enough makeup to make a good impression and no more. In her opinion, a little was preferable to a lot. She hoped her new colleagues would share that opinion.
As she walked through her cramped room, she stopped to check the Meganet on her personal pod. She waved her hand in front of the small rectangular screen to wake it up. Lights came on and shone into her eyes. Images filled the screen. The first thing she noticed was a new message. Iris tapped the message icon with her finger. It was from her mother.
“Play message,” she said aloud, opting to use the voice feature from here on out.
The message began to play.
“Hey Iris, it’s your mother. I know you’ll be getting up early tomorrow so you’re probably already in bed by the time I send this. I know you might not care to hear this, but I just want to wish you luck at your new job. I think this is really a great opportunity for you. So that’s all. I just wanted to call to wish you good luck. Maybe you’ll find a cute blond man working there. Who knows? Keep your eyes out,” said the voice in the message.
Iris rolled her eyes. Her mother didn’t mean these words. This was a formality, nothing more. She was not an intellectual like her daughter. She stayed at home, doing nothing with her time. Her life was not worthy of Iris’s aspirations. She wants me to be like her, Iris thought. She wants me to settle down and find a man. Honestly she was just surprised that her mother had not called asking for a favor. That was the normal routine.
“Oh and one more thing,” the message continued.
Of course there’s more. Iris was just about to close the message. This is it, she thought. This is where she asks for my help.
“I’m not going to ask for money, don’t worry. I’m not going to ask for help either. I just want you to stop by. I want to see you. Your father wants to see you. We both want to talk to you, nothing more. I don’t even know your address. You barely ever respond to your pod. Just stop by sometime. If not for me, do it for your father. Anyway, that is all.”
The tone of voice was different this time. It was more somber than before.
She wants me to think something serious has happened, Iris thought. The budding teacher did not want to get roped in, not this time. Whenever Iris managed to pull herself out of their clutches, her parents always managed to pull her back in. This time she would stay strong.
Often Iris would think back to her youth and remember what her life could have been if her parents had not pulled her back. She imagined a life of adventure and excitement instead of a life of books and loneliness.
The first time Iris had ever skimmed the pages of a digitized book was when she visited her aunt’s residence as a seven-year-old. She remembered sneaking off from her parents and picking up the pod lying on the table by the door as the adults sat in the next room. To this day Iris could even remember the title of the book, The History of Ancient Cultures: Volume 1 by someone named Navarro and Underman. It was an old book, published back from the days before the Descent, back when the word ‘publish’ actually meant something other than ‘upload’. Reading the glowing words of that history book was one of the most exciting nights of her life. She was worried at first when her parents finally caught her with the pod but she smiled later when they did not even get mad. They just let her keep on reading, and Iris did not want to stop. Each page was more exhilarating than the last. She had no idea at the time that this one moment would shape her childhood.
When she was eight, Iris won her own personal pod in a trivia contest held by her elementary school. The young girl studied ahead of time, taking pods from her parents when they were busy and reading what she could on the Meganet. Her studying paid off in the end. Iris was the only student who consistently knew all the answers to each question. When the last student answered her question wrong, Iris laughed in joy while everyone else sat silently around her, wondering what was so funny. The moderators looked up the other student’s answer and, sure enough, it was wrong just as Iris knew all along. As she stood up, ready to accept her prize, the young girl knew exactly which book she wanted to download first.
The History of Ancient Cultures: Volume 1.
Iris spent most of her time reading after that day.[_ _]Even after completing the book numerous times, she would always go back to the beginning and start again. Three months later, the next volume had finally been converted to digital format and Iris could not have been more excited. She saved her money for the next volume weeks before it was released and waited for it to show up on the Meganet. When it finally came, the new book met all of her highest expectations.
She enjoyed all types of books, but in her mind [The History of Ancient Cultures _]was the best. Iris would come home from school and go right to the pod and read until dinnertime. She did everything as fast as she could, from chores to homework, just to spend more time reading. As far as she was concerned, the more time she spent reading _The History of Ancient Cultures, or another text, the better the day.
She also enjoyed spending time with her friends, but they were not as fond of reading as she was. At first she preferred books to the company of others but as she got to know others her age, she slowly began to prefer them instead. Often she and her friend Trace from down the hallway would play games in the transition zones, like wall tag or light chasers. He was a year older than her, a big kid, but very nice. He would sometimes get other kids involved in games too. Somehow he was always good at rallying others to play with them. She never had this skill and at the time never realized why he was so good at it. Slowly throughout the later years of her elementary school, she grew to like him and preferred spending time with him to anything else. But once middle school came around, Iris saw less and less of Trace as her parents wanted her to stay closer to home.
“You’ll hurt yourself playing with that boy,” Iris remembered her mother say. “Stay with us, stay inside.”
Her parents grew more and more concerned each day as she started to return with bruised legs, reddened elbows and scabs on her knees. When they could take it no longer, Iris’s mother made the final decision. The family moved away to another district on Level 5, leaving Iris with nothing but her books to keep her company.
At first this was fine. Iris enjoyed her books after all, but over time she realized that Trace brought out her ambitious side, a side of her that books never could. When she played with him, she felt like she was an adventurer out in the halls, like the legendary Sergeant McMulltin or the great Alpheus, Explorer of the Depths. With books she could only read about adventures, not live them.
It was only when Iris reached her third year in high school that she started to feel ambitious again. As the time came to choose classes for her third year, she made the decision to sign up for the history club. For once she was around people who had something in common. They were all there for the same purpose, to learn and have fun. Young Iris realized that she enjoyed being part of a group and slowly regained her lost confidence. By her 18th birthday, the teen was not only a major part of the history club, but also the founder of the school’s new chess team and a friend of many of the teachers.
It was as if she were the ruler of her own kingdom. But throughout history, all dynasties would eventually end, and sure enough Iris’s came toppling down. Though she did not know it at the time, as she took the high school diploma from the principle’s hand, she was exiting the world where she felt confident in herself and taking a step into somewhere she did not understand.
Despite wanting to continue a life of adventure, Iris did not go back to school after that, at least not right away. Her parents pressured her otherwise.
“Stay home,” she remembered her mother saying. “We’re your parents. You belong with us.”
While most of her friends went off to college, Iris returned home without a group to make her feel welcomed. At first she tried to relive the past with other activities like Meganet forums and gaming. But these were just substitutes that could not fill the gaps she felt in her life. Without Trace and the acceptance she felt from others, she slowly transformed back into the quiet, shy girl she used to be. As time went on, her ambitions faded away and she returned to her books. Staying at home was like a sickness and the longer Iris stayed the worse her illness grew.
So no mom, I won’t return your call, the teacher thought, frustrated by her memories.
For now she decided to put these old thoughts aside. It was time to focus on the present. Iris powered off her personal pod and stuffed it into her purse. She popped on some grey heels and grabbed a black blazer from the back of her desk chair that she had set out the night before. She folded it over her arm. For a few seconds she just stood still, but then she turned her body again and looked through the bathroom door to the mirror, checking to see how she looked.
I look like a lady alright, she thought. Her government-black hair came down to her shoulders, combed back nicely behind her head. The thin black skirt hugged her waistline, making the teacher appear thinner, but professional. Her fiery red blouse certainly stood out, contrasting the pale white walls of her stuffy apartment, not to mention the pale whiteness of her own complexion. It was easy to see the white of her skin even with the makeup, which added considerable color to her face. Everyone was pale in the station, especially those with European ancestry. But no one was paler than those of Nordic background, like Iris.
Her family name was Vitneskja, a title of Icelandic origin. Of those who believed in the truth of the world, few knew of Iceland, an island in the ocean inhabited by simple people. They may have been simple, Iris knew, but they were smart and educated.
She had studied the history of the island for quite some time, eager to know more about her roots. The Icelanders were always underestimated time and time again. Iris liked that. She hoped to live up to that tradition.
“Alright,” she said as she stared into the mirror, “time to go.”
With those words she turned, shut off the light and exited into the hallway. But she barely took two steps before someone interrupted her focus.
“What’s this?” said a voice to her right.
Iris turned down the hall to see her neighbor, Desmond. For the life of her, she could not remember his last name, but she knew it was something Korean. A rare ancestry in the Atlantic, she thought. It must make it hard for him to find a wife.
She quickly glanced down at his hand and was surprised to find a golden wedding ring wrapped around his finger. I guess there’s someone for everybody after all.
“Hey Desmond, just off to work,” she replied, caught a bit off guard. She turned back to her door, pulled it shut and locked it.
Desmond took a few steps towards her.
“Look at you all dressed up!” he said.
Iris felt herself blush, not out of flattery but rather embarrassment.
“I didn’t mean to be rude,” Desmond added. “I mean, it’s just good to see you all put together. I’m glad you’re getting out of your apartment. It’s good to see you out.”
“Thanks but it’s not really my style, you know?” Iris responded.
Desmond smiled and closed his own door. She did not know him very well, but as far as she knew, he seemed like a nice and honest man; although this opinion was based purely on brief casual encounters in the hallways.
“I know. I wasn’t trying to make fun. You look good. You don’t think so?”
Iris looked down at her clothes. She was not quite sure how to respond. What did she really think? The outfit was annoying to put on, of course, but Iris honestly didn’t hate the look. In fact as she thought about it, she realized there was a certain element of fun in being ladylike for a change. The idea made her smile. Perhaps she was genuinely warming up to it after all.
“I suppose,” was all she said back.
“Well I won’t bother you. Good luck at your job. I hear you’re working at a school now, right?”
Iris nodded. Word traveled fast in the station. She felt awkward knowing little to nothing about a man who apparently knew a lot about her.
“That’s right. I’m going to be a teacher,” she answered.
He slowly bobbed his head and lifted his hand, waving to her.
“That’s great! Have a good day,” he said as he turned around and walked the opposite direction down the hall.
Iris smiled. For some reason, talking to him just now made her feel good. She did not know why, but right now the why was not so important. Keep up the positive energy, she told herself. Make it a good day.
That morning, things were looking a little more colorful for the lady in red.
Mr. Tracey Saljov
(Chapter originally featured in novel Iris)
Beep, beep, beep!
The buzzer rang loudly as Tracey Saljov opened his dreary eyes. He looked to the side as the glowing numbers shined in his face, taunting him like a restless child. Another day, he told himself, another day of the same, only this time I’m fucked.
After shutting off the buzzer, Tracey made his best effort to get out of bed. It took him a few tries. Each time he would rise, pause to relax for a mere second and suddenly find himself shrouded in the comfort of his bed sheets. On the fourth time, or maybe the fifth (he was not quite sure), Tracey finally managed to pull himself out of bed, stumble to the light switch and flip it on.
His head still rang from the night before. Tracey held his left hand to his forehead and pressed down, but that didn’t help. It was as if he had been hit by a power scooter. Hell, maybe I did get hit by a power scooter for all I know. With all those lights from the clubs, it was hard to stay sane even when sober. Tracey could swear President Ortega painted the district multicolored just to fuck everyone who went there. Of course the colors were around before Ortega, but fuck it, I don’t know who else to blame.
Two shots of whopski and a green milk bomb were not enough to send him over the edge. Tracey switched to beer from that point on. It was that damn SLI, he told himself. Once he let that white vapor enter his lungs, his body and mind belonged to the Lord Beyond Both Seas. Two shots of whopski could have turned into 10 for all he knew. His memory became as black as the sea floor by that point. Dammit.
This had been happening a lot more lately. Ever since his younger brother outranked him, nothing had been the same. Weekly visits to the colored zone became daily ones. But the pain was still there. Damien was younger after all. Tracey was supposed to protect him, look after him. Now he’s looking after me. It was not long after his brother’s promotion that Tracey quit the Navy. He decided the life was not for him. If Damien can rise in the ranks and I can’t, there is nothing I can do for them. His brother had not been any more talented that he was, but rather the Navy was simply out for Tracey from the beginning. They fucking hated me and I knew it.
As far as Tracey was concerned, there was nothing good about the government. Ortega was bad, of course, but the problem did not start with him. It had been bad from the start, even down to the motto.
Progress through obedience.
The words made Tracey snicker. Yeah, but who’s progress? _]They claimed it was the progress of all humanity, but he was never quite so certain. Humanity was already dead. Humanity died the second the bombs fell. [_The Lord Beyond Both Seas must have had mercy on the few who got away; either that or we’re the ones who foiled his plan.
This was Ortega’s world now. Humanity was out of the equation.
“Dad!” the voice could be heard through the plastic white door. Tracey knew the voice. Ophelia was already up.
Tracey grabbed a pair of brown pants, pulled on a white shirt and opened the door without even checking himself in the mirror. He had to cover his eyes as he entered the living room. It was as white as a rich man’s teeth and as bright as the Lord himself.
“Ophelia, what are you doing up? You don’t have school,” he asked as he walked in. He wondered if she could tell how sick he felt. She probably can. She’s a smart girl.
His daughter stood in the center of the room wearing a white dress decorated in elaborate designs of various colors. He seemed to recall the word to be flowers but it had been a long time since he learned his surface facts. He liked the colors though. It almost reminded him of the entertainment district.
“Why are you all dressed up?” he asked, before allowing her to answer.
Ophelia smiled before saying anything. Clearly she wanted to show off what she was wearing. It was about that time she grew interested in fashion. Already 12 years old, she would be starting middle school in only a few more days.
“You like it?” she asked. “I got it last night.”
Last night? What happened last night? Oh that’s right, the bar.
“Oh?” Tracey asked. He walked past her and fell into the couch nearby. It felt good to sit down. Unbelievably good. “And where did you get the money for a dress like that?”
Ophelia smiled again. She loved toying with her father.
“A boy bought it for me,” she answered. She blushed as she said it.
Tracey rolled his eyes. Now we’re at this phase too, he realized. [Shit. _]Not only was it too early to deal with this, but his mental state made the situation even more complicated. Tracey wondered if Ophelia had planned it out that way on purpose.[ She probably did,] he thought.[ She’s a smart girl._]
“Alright, who’s this boy? Someone at school?”
Ophelia shook her head amusingly.
“I don’t know anyone at school yet. It was Cedric,” she answered.
Cedric, as if that makes it okay. Cedric was the neighbor boy, a few years older than Ophelia. The two of them spent a lot of time with each other, wandering through the green and yellow areas, playing digital games at each other’s homes. They had been friends for a long time, but that did not make it okay for him to buy her nice dresses.
“Why did he buy you this dress?” he asked.
“Cedric’s dad got a promotion, he said. He got more allowance from his parents, but he never buys anything.”
Tracey leaned forward, although he loved the feel of the couch against his back.
“So you asked him to buy the dress for you?” he asked.
Ophelia shook her head. Her neat blonde hair whooshed from side to side across her face.
“He bought it on his own. He said he never buys anything so he doesn’t need the money,” she explained again.
“Ophelia, you know sometimes boys buy things for girls because they want something from you,” he said, hoping to get the message across without needing to go into further detail. He wondered if she would understand.
“I know, but he’s not like that. He was just being nice.”
“How do you know?”
She started to look visibly frustrated by her father’s questions. She stared at him motionlessly as her smile faded away like a puddle of water flowing down the drain. Tracey never wanted to make her mad, but he always looked out for her best interests. He was a parent after all and this was a natural parental response.
“I just know, dad. Can’t I have a friend who’s a boy?” she asked.
Tracey sighed and leaned back into the couch again. Bad day for a hangover.
“Yes, of course you can, but just watch out is all I’m saying. Just be careful. He’s older than you and he lives next door. I’m just worried is all,” he answered.
Ophelia wasted no time responding to that.
“You told me you had a neighbor friend when you were a kid,” she said.
Dammit, she has me there.
Tracey could not think of a way out of this one. When he was her age, he was very close friends with a girl named Iris, a soft spoken blonde-haired girl down the hall. She was a few years younger than him, but her mind was just as sharp, if not sharper. They would run through the yellow zones, chase each other through the white halls and ride around on unpowered scooters. She would tell him all about books and history while he would tell her all about submarines and loaders. They were an odd match, one studious and shy, the other adventurous and outgoing, but a match nonetheless. She used to call him Trace, he remembered. Tracey is a girl’s name, he used to tell himself. But that name died away when they moved apart. He never found out what happened to her. He had not seen or heard from her since they were kids. He wondered if she even remembered him.
“Iris,” Tracey said aloud.
“Yes, Iris! That’s the one,” Ophelia responded excitedly. She knew she had him.
“Alright, you got me there. But look, you still should watch out, okay?” Tracey stood up as he said this. He decided he had spent enough time sitting down. Hangover or not, he still had to get to work on time.
“Okay, fine.” Ophelia’s tone was unenthusiastic, almost sarcastic, but Tracey was not surprised. He supposed he would have responded the same way at her age. It all takes time, he thought.
He made his way to the kitchen, pretending everything was fine. He took a plate from the cupboard and found an ovular bread roll fresh from the agricultural sector, courtesy of President Ortega. Government food, he thought. Filled with drugs. Despite his distaste for the Federation, there was not really an alternative option. Black market food, though deemed healthier, was becoming increasingly risky and increasingly expensive. The government had been cracking down on illegal food production lately, not that the media had reported on it much. But that was typical. Ortega is just tightening his grip. Thank the Lord Beyond Both Seas the Saturday market still exists.
“So you never answered my first question,” Tracey said, trying to get his mind off the government for once. He turned towards Ophelia, who had followed him into the kitchen area. “Why are you up so early?”
She shrugged innocently.
“Oh, couldn’t sleep,” she said.
“Couldn’t sleep?” This was unusual. Ophelia was usually a very heavy sleeper. Within 10 minutes she could fall asleep anywhere at any time. Four years ago they travelled to see Tracey’s aunt at work in the production sector. On the way, little Ophelia had fallen asleep during the elevator ride. Tracey had never seen someone fall asleep in an elevator before, nor any time since.
“I was just excited,” she replied. “You know, with school starting up.”
Tracey nodded and smiled. For a second he forgot about his headache. Perhaps the conversation was providing a good distraction.
“Middle school,” he said as he took a bite of the bread. He had not even realized how hungry he was until he took that first bite.
“Is middle school hard?” she asked.
Tracey did not expect this question. Ophelia was usually prepared for everything.
“Middle school? No, middle school is easy. And fun too,” Tracey replied. “You have different classes, you will make new friends and you start off with a field trip to the mining sector! I wish I had a cool field trip like that when I was your age.” Though in truth, he had snuck into the mining sector at her age and secretly watched the rocks come in and out of the large docking doors. Tracey never needed field trips to see the restricted zones, just sneakiness and a bit of courage.
“You didn’t have a field trip like that?” she asked.
“Nope. We never saw the mining sector, or anything like that. We were in school the whole time. We didn’t do much but read,” he replied honestly.
Tracey chuckled. Damn fucking right.
“What if it’s too much work though?” she asked.
Tracey shook his head as he stuffed another piece of processed bread into his mouth.
“You’ll be fine,” he replied after chewing enough bites to be intelligible.
Ophelia walked over to the cabinet and pulled out a red flavored probar. Tracey did not like her eating that kind of stuff, but she was a picky girl and he was not in the mood to argue. He watched as she unwrapped it from the foil, wondering how much of it came from the agricultural sector.
“But I’m going to have more homework, right? Will I have to go to homeroom each morning, sit quietly and recite the pledge like I did before?” she asked.
“Unfortunately, yes. You will have more homework. But you’re good at homework and it’s not that bad. You’ll still have a lot of time. And you’ll probably have to go to homeroom, but if they make you recite that pledge again, you tell them what I said before,” he replied. Tracey was not fond of the pledge, not since the Navy made it their goal to spite him. Funny how joining the Navy destroyed my patriotism.
Ophelia shrugged as she bit into the red colored bar of chemistry.
“I don’t want more homework, but I don’t mind the pledge. I like the pledge,” she said.
I was afraid you’d say that. But Tracey did not anticipate what Ophelia would do next. She put the bar down onto the counter and stood straight as support beam.
“I pledge myself, both body and mind, to the ideals of the Atlantic Federation,” she started. Tracey shook his head and pointed his finger towards her.
“Don’t you say that!” he said to her. But she would not listen. She continued to recite the pledge as if he was not even there. Suddenly Tracey felt his headache again. The pain was returning.
“- that we as humanity may survive and prosper, under the Light of the Lord Beyond Both Seas…”
Tracey placed his left hand on his head again and pressed down. The pressure did little to calm the pain. He felt dehydrated, dizzy. Damn hangover.
“Progress through obedience,” she continued. Those were the words that hit him the hardest. “Long live the Federation.”
“Are you done now?” he asked.
Ophelia smiled like she was opening a gift on her birthday. This is all amusing to her. She was clearly in a taunting mood this morning.
“Of course, dad.”
Tracey leaned down towards her and placed his hands on her shoulders.
“Do you know what that means? Do you know what those words mean?” he asked.
Ophelia smiled again.
“Of course, dad!”
Tracey was not so convinced.
“It means you have to pledge yourself, promise yourself that you will do whatever the government tells you. That you have to be obedient, do whatever they say without questioning it. That’s not right, Ophelia. Those words aren’t right. We should never do something without questioning it. We should always question what people tell us to do. Do you understand?” he explained.
Ophelia paused for a few seconds but then the grin washed from her face and she nodded her head.
“Does this mean I can hang out with Cedric more?” she asked.
Tracey was taken by surprise. That was not the response he expected.
“Uh, what does Cedric have to do with this?”
Ophelia looked up into his eyes.
“You said question what people tell me to do. Well you told me to watch out for Cedric, so I’m going to question what you tell me to do,” she responded.
Of course she would, he thought.[_ She’s a smart girl._]
“Ha, not me, just everyone else,” he explained, knowing this answer would not satisfy her either. She’s too smart for me, he realized.
“But you said-”
“I know what I said,” Tracey interrupted, “but look, just listen. I’m your father. You should always listen to your father. Okay?”
Ophelia nodded without saying a word. She doesn’t get it, Tracey realized, but she will eventually. She always does eventually. She’s a smart girl after all.
Bang, bang, bang!
The booming knocks erupted from the front door. Tracey and Ophelia both turned towards the noise immediately.
“Who is that?” Ophelia asked.
Tracey reached for his pod but quickly realized it was not in his pocket. Perhaps he had left it in his room. Either that or the bar has it now. He did not know exactly what time it was but he knew it was early, too early for visitors, especially unexpected ones.
The father walked towards the noise and reached for the door. As the white slab slid open, Tracey could feel the cold handle against his palm. At least I can still feel the normal things. I’m not that fucked up… yet.
A man stood at attention on the other side, wearing a white uniform as clean as a real estate agent’s showroom. Two guards stood behind him like statues trapped in photographs. The goddamn whitecoats, thought Tracey, though in reality he supposed he should not have been too surprised. Ortega’s hunters, coming to pull me back in. That’s what they do to quitters.
“Ophelia, go back into your room,” he said, turning back towards his daughter.
To his relief, she did not fight. Perhaps the expression of his face or the tone of his voice made her do it, but she turned and simply walked away. Thank the Lord Beyond Both Seas she didn’t try anything. That was the last thing he needed right now, that and a raging headache. Goddam whopski.
“Mr. Saljov,” the whitecoat said. Tracey turned back to face him, still holding the door open with one hand. He didn’t address me by my military rank, Tracey realized. [Maybe they’re not here to bring me back. _]He hoped that were true. _Or maybe this is all some game.
“Yes, that’s me,” he replied.
“It’s about your brother,” the whitecoat replied without any hesitation. “We’ve been trying to reach you all night. When we couldn’t get a hold of you, we decided to try you first thing in the morning. I hope you can excuse the odd timing.”
My brother. This was not what Tracey expected. Damien was a pilot for the Navy, the one who decided to stay. He was a good man, clean cut and rule abiding. He was not the type to get into trouble.
Tracey debated for a moment whether to invite these men into his home. He decided to wait and see what they had to say first before letting them through the door.
“What about Damien?” he asked, getting right to the point.
The man in front looked towards the two guards on either side of him and subtly nodded his head. He turned forward again and they all three removed their caps at the same time like machines on the production line. Suddenly Tracey felt his heartbeat pick up. Oh no, Damien. Not Damien.
“We’re sorry to tell you sir, but your brother is currently M.I.A.” he replied.
M.I.A. or[_ missing in action.] Anyone in the Navy could tell you those words were trogshit. There was no _action, just routine scouting runs and patrols. If Damien was missing, it was undoubtedly the Navy’s fault. Despite Ortega’s paranoia, the enemy was nothing more than the high water pressure pushing down on them. The Pacific and Indian Stations abandoned communication long ago. Rumor had it their latest messages were confusing, illogical and impossible to interpret. Those were just government secrets of course, like everything else here in the station. But the fact remained, there was no enemy. M.I.A. my ass. Just another cover up for Ortega’s missions gone wrong.“
“What are the details?” he asked, not believing a word.
“That’s classified, I’m afraid,” the man replied.
Blatant disrespect, Tracey thought. He comes to bring me bad news but spares me the details. This was part of the reason he could never stand the military. He decided to keep the men out in the hall for a bit longer.
“Fuck classified,” he replied.
The men did not seem fazed.
“Sorry to have to tell you this, sir,” the whitecoat continued.
“Is this how you treat your fellow Navy?” Tracey interrupted.
The man paused for a moment and put his cap back on his head. His two guards followed.
“I’m sorry sir, but you are no longer Navy. You quit, if I recall,” he replied.
“I’m glad you boys have done your research. But look, I was one of you. My brother is still one of you. We’re all the same here, gentlemen. What makes you think you can come here and treat me with this kind of trogshit?” Tracey said, knowing his lecture would not change any of their minds.
“Classified my ass.”
The man paused and took a deep breath, then looked up into Tracey’s eyes.
“Sir, do you think we could come in?”
“You can stay right there.”
Tracey met the man’s eyes. They were deep pools of black, like the thick oily hair on his head. One look at this man and Tracey had him all figured out. He was in his mid-thirties, probably with more kids than the government would allow, all legal though through connections with Ortega, [or Sandra Walter more likely, that fucking whore. _]There was something about this man, the way his sentences sounded like recited lines, the way he stood with his back straight and the way he commanded his guards like tools in a kit. _He was probably brought up in one of the wealthy sectors, raised in a home with enough white space to fit three families, Tracey thought. I bet he drank real milk every night, not that synthetic shit the government gave the rest of the military. I wonder how long he had to ride that elevator to get here today.
“Very well, we will not come in, but you must hear more of what we have to say,” the man continued.
“But apparently it’s classified,” Tracey replied.
“Do you even care about your brother?” the man asked, finally showing signs of frustration.
Tracey knew he had him there. Turned the table on you, you educated shit.
“No,” the man said after a pause, “but I’m concerned about you. You’re right, I did my research. You went AWOL. And that’s not all. Synthetic Looper Inhalant, yeah I know about it. I have enough on you to lock you up if you want to play this game. Do you want that? Do you want your daughter there to wonder where you are? Then you should stay quiet and let me do my job. By the way, you don’t look so good right now. Can we please come in?”
There was no negotiating with him at this point. Tracey removed his hand from the doorway and motioned the three men to come inside.
“So,” he said as the three whitecoats made their way in, “tell me about my brother’s M.I.A. case. As much as you’re allowed, that is.” He would at least try to be polite for now.
The dark-haired man entered first with his two guards following behind. One of them closed the door as the others helped themselves to a seat. Enough of all this fake politeness; just get to my brother.
Tracey pressed his hand against his head again and rubbed the skin under his eyes. That damn hangover. Fuck.
“That’s better Mr. Saljov,” he said tauntingly. He knows he holds all the fucking cards and he’s loving it. “Now I will brief you on the status of your brother, or as much as I’m allowed, as you say.” Tracey was not amused by this comment. “Yesterday your brother was involved in a testing operation of a new vessel. The test was intended to take this new craft higher than any other craft since the Descent.”
“What was the craft?”
“As of now, that’s classified.”
“What was the craft?” Tracey asked again. This prompted the man to lean forward sternly.
“I’m not here to play games, Mr. Saljov. How’s that headache?” The man paused for a moment, inviting Tracey to respond. But he remained silent. As much as it pained him to treat this man with respect, he knew where the real power lied.
“As of now specific details of the craft are classified,” he continued. “However, during this mission, he and the pilot, Captain Sara Gessetti, were intercepted.” The man held his cap down by his chest. The others followed suit. “I am sorry to tell you sir, but we do believe your brother’s craft was attacked and he is likely dead.” At this point there was no taunt to the man’s voice. He meant every word.
“Attacked?” Tracey asked in disbelief. “Attacked by who?”
“Details regarding the attackers are also classified,” he answered as scripted as a recording. The man was like a machine.
Cold, heartless, orderly.
“You fucking piece of shit,” Tracey spat out, suddenly losing all composure. “You expect me to accept that answer?” He stood up from his seat and glared into the man’s eyes. The guards stood up too, ready to get involved at any second.
Tracey no longer felt his hangover. He no longer felt anything but a desire for answers.
“There is no enemy. There is no attacker. You fuckers lost my brother and you’re coming to me telling me-“
“I’m telling you, Mr. Saljov, that he was attacked!” the man stood up and met his intensity. At least he’s not always like a robot.
“And I’m telling you, that’s impossible!” Tracey replied. “Who the fuck attacked him? And don’t give me that ‘classified’ trogshit. There is no enemy out there. Who was it? A fucking fish? Did the Navy’s new experimental craft get torn apart by a couple of marlins and a goddamn octopus or are you covering up some trogshit failure on the part of your goddamn boss? How did you get that fucking rank anyway, Mr. I-forget-your-fucking-name? What’s Sandra Walter like in bed, huh? Either give me some fucking answers or get out of my goddamn home.”
“I’m afraid I cannot do either of those things Mr. Saljov,” the man responded.
Tracey took a deep breath. He knew he’d lost it, but his frustration was just too hard to control. My brother is dead. My own goddamn brother. I deserve some answers. He bowed his head, took a few seconds and then raised his head again, trying to recompose himself.
“Alright then,” he replied, trying to stay calm. “What’s the next step then? What happens now, huh?” he asked.
“Now we bring you in for questioning,” the man answered.
Tracey felt his heart almost stop for a moment. The image of his daughter ran through his head. Questioning. So they’ve finally got me.
“Do I have a say in this?” he asked, knowing full well that his question was futile.
“No you do not, sir,” the man responded.
Tracey continued to fake his calmness. He looked down one more time and took another breath.
“What about my daughter?” he asked.
“Say goodbye to her now,” the man replied, “but as long as you are helpful, you will not be gone long. You should be back by the end of the day to take care of her. That is, of course, if you cooperate.”
The end of the day. That was not the response Tracey had expected.
“You mean you’re not taking me away?” he asked, relieved.
“Not at all,” the man responded, shaking his head. “As far as we’re concerned, you are not important right now. This questioning is in regards to your brother.”
“I’m confused. So you guys just want to ask about my brother? Are you guys looking for fucking clues or something?”
The man nodded.
“Any information you can give us about your brother may be helpful in this case. Your questioning will not be conducted by one of my soldiers, but by Dr. Sanja Parnel, head of your brother’s investigation.”
Thank the Lord Beyond Both Seas, he thought. I can’t stand these goddamn Navy men. Suddenly this did not seem so bad. It was certainly better than going to work and driving a loader all day.
“Good,” he said. “I can’t stand another one of you tough guys treating me like this. About time I can talk to someone decent.”
This comment brought a grin to the man’s face. He chuckled, showing his first signs of amusement all day.
“Oh no, Mr. Saljov, trust me, Dr. Parnel is no Navy man. She is much worse.”
Ms. Iris Vitneskja
(Chapter originally featured in novel Kholvaria)
The white halls echoed with the sound of the girl’s footsteps as she ran at full speed. Trace was still ahead of her. He had always been slightly faster. As much as the girl tried, she could never keep up with him.
They neared the end of the hallway, where the white walls met yellow. Almost there, the girl thought. Suddenly a door swung open. Trace had to slow down and eventually stop or risk colliding right into it. A man came out of the open room with a surprised expression on his face.
This is my shot! Now, while he’s distracted!
Iris rushed forward with all the power she had left. She passed Trace and continued into the yellow halls. Once there, she stopped and turned, jumping up and down in excitement. The girl knew she had won.
Trace walked up to her, huffing and puffing. His white shirt was covered in sweat and his black sweatpants seemed like they had travelled a few centimeters lower on his waist. He leaned down and shook his head in disbelief.
“No fair!” he eventually said, leaning back up. “That guy came out of nowhere!”
“It’s the station!” Iris replied. “What did you expect? I won fair and square.”
“You won’t win again! Trust me,” Trace teased.
Iris smiled, though she knew he was probably right.
Trace walked up to her and patted her on the back.
“Until next time,” he said.
They took a moment to catch their breaths as pedestrians walked past them in the busy yellow zone. After a few seconds, Iris turned to face the residential hall again.
“Should we head back now?” she wondered.
“Well, what do you want to do?” Trace asked.
“Not another race. I’m too tired,” Iris said. “Plus, my mom won’t be happy if I’m home late again.”
“It’s not late!”
“Maybe not for you, but it is for me. Your parents don’t care. Mine do.”
“Your parents are possessive.”
Iris lowered her head and sighed. She’d heard those words before but kept telling herself it wasn’t true. Her parents loved her. That’s why they wanted her home all the time. Nothing more.
“Well… whatever,” was all she said back, not totally sure how to respond.
Without questioning it further, the two kids started walking home. They were not too far from their residences.
“You’re getting faster,” Trace noted as they walked along. “I had to really try that time!”
Iris chuckled. Just that time, huh?
“Thanks,” was all she said back.
“Are you trying out for any teams this year?”
Teams? There was no way. Iris hated sports. She could hardly believe Trace was even asking that question.
“No, probably not,” she replied.
“Why not?” Trace questioned. “You might be good at it!”
“I… I don’t know. It’s just not my thing,” she explained.
“Well what is your thing? Reading books?”
“No, not reading books. I can’t do that forever.”
Trace took a few steps in front of her and turned around, walking backwards while keeping his eyes on her. He had a big grin on his face.
“If you could be anything when you grow up, what would you be?” he asked. He seemed amused by this question.
Iris did not respond right away. She took a few seconds to think. But she eventually pointed to the ceiling and answered.
“I want to invent a time machine and go back in time. I want to see the whole world before the Descent. I would see Egypt and Greece and China!”
“Wow, wow, wow, a time machine? That’s not a real job! You can’t do that!” Trace protested. He shook his head vigorously. “I mean something real!”
“Who says time machines can’t be real?” Iris wondered. “Maybe they will be real in the future.”
“Because if they were real, someone would have come back in time already and we would have met them,” Trace explained. “So time machines can’t be real!”
“What if they came back in secret?”
“Just pick something else.”
Iris paused again to think of another answer. After a few seconds, she was ready.
“Okay,” she said. “I guess if I’m being serious, I just want to help people. I want people’s lives to be better because of something I did, you know? I don’t want to die and have people forget about me. I want to be important to someone.”
Trace joined Iris by her side again and faced forward as they walked.
“Wow, Iris. That’s deep. But it’s still not a job,” he explained.
She turned to face him.
“Well, that’s the truth. I don’t know what else to say.”
“So you want people’s lives to be better because of you?” Trace clarified.
“Hmm…” the boy said. “I thought you would say ‘historian’ or something.”
“Well that wouldn’t be so bad either,” Iris admitted. “How about you? Still want to join the Navy?”
“Yeah,” he said. “I feel like I’m in good shape. I’d get good training and I’d be protecting people. I’d make people’s lives better too, just like you said.”
“It’s a good goal to have,” Iris replied.
“Yeah,” Trace agreed. “It is.”
“I bet in 20 years, you’ll be like a captain or something,” Iris said to him.
“And I bet in 20 years, you’ll still be boring!” Trace teased. Iris glared at him, unamused. “Seriously though, you’ll probably be a professor or something. That’s what I bet. Either that, or the first person to explore the surface.”
“The surface? That’ll be the day. I like history, but I’m no explorer.”
“I bet you’ll have a lot of kids,” Trace added. He seemed excited to predict Iris’s future.
“Oh,” Iris said. She was not sure what she thought about the idea of motherhood. She was too young to think about such things. “Thanks, I guess.”
“I can’t wait to grow up,” Trace continued. He did not seem like he wanted to stop talking anytime soon. “I bet I’ll live forever.”
“Nobody can live forever. That’s impossible.”
“Well I bet I’ll live a long time.”
“I bet I’ll live longer than you. Women have longer lives than men. I read that somewhere.”
“Pssh,” Trace retorted. He threw his hands in the air. “Whatever. I’m healthy. I’ve always been healthy. I bet I’ll live a long time.”
“Do you think I’ll live a long time too?” Iris wondered.
“Yeah. I bet we both will! We’ll be the strongest there are!” Trace replied. He had so much confidence in his voice. “Nothing will stop us!”
Dr. Sanja Parnel
(Chapter originally featured in novel Iris)
Dr. Sanja Parnel was late to the meeting. She rushed in as fast as she could, holding up her badge to the guards as the large black metal slabs opened in front of her. As she passed through the doors into the Strategic Action Room, she was immediately reminded just how small it was. The black walls of the government districts never did much to make it look large, but with all these people packed into it like candy in a bag, the room seemed hardly bigger than a classroom. She quickly found an area to stand with the other members of her team.
“- and as such, the information disclosed in this meeting is of the utmost secrecy,” she heard someone say in the middle of the room.
There was a large circular table in the center where the top government and military officials were seated. All others had to stand around it. Most of the people here were Navy. The clean men and women in their uniforms stood like a sea of white in a world of black.
“This is all well understood, Commander Grey,” another voice responded. “I believe everyone here knows the price for treason.”
Sanja wished she were taller so she could see who was talking. She could tell it was a male voice but beyond that, she was not sure.
“Commander, if you would be so kind as to share this information with us,” another male voice added, this one much deeper and aged than the other.
Sanja could not see the table, but she was able to see Jordan Grey’s head as he stood up from the table and looked around the room. He was about the same age as her, but appeared older with this grey hair and wrinkled face. Sanja wondered if he would continue to maintain his seemingly everlasting immaculate composure under these stressful times.
“Alright then,” he said as all eyes stared upon him. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’ve all been introduced. I see Dr. Parnel has arrived late. She will be sharing some more details later on. Right now each of you knows various details of what’s going on. Some of you are completely in the dark.”
“Shall we just cut to the chase, Commander?” asked the first mysterious voice again.
Jordan looked down towards his left and held up his hand.
“Yes, of course,” he said. Sanja smiled, amused. Even now he held himself together. “Ten days ago, we lost contact with a two-man crew of a new Navy prototype vehicle.” He pressed a button on his pod and a 3D rendering of the vehicle appeared on a holographic projection in the center of the table. Fortunately, the projection was high enough that Sanja could make it out above the heads of everyone in front of her. She had seen this design many times before but guessed that many people in this room were just now seeing this image for the first time. “What’s more disturbing though are the circumstances surrounding their disappearance. Only minutes before losing contact, I personally spoke to the captain of the vessel, Sara Gessetti. I know several people in this room were close to Captain Gessetti, myself included. You all have the right to know what happened to her that day.”
Jordan paused as if he was waiting for something. He turned towards the man to his right and nodded his head. Sanja wished she could see more of what was happening. That’s my fault for coming late, she thought to herself.
“You may proceed, Commander,” a new voice added, this one female and stern.
After a few taps on Jordan’s pod, a new image replaced the submarine prototype. A paused video took its place. It was a two way conversation between the captain and Jordan Grey. The captain was a pretty woman with dark hair and pale white skin. Despite being out of uniform, her stern facial expression and demeanor made her look very official. Sweat dripped down her head, making it look as if she had just come from the shower. Her grey tank top was pressed tightly against her body. The heat must be unbearable, she thought as she watched the image.
“I will now play the recording for you all. I am to remind you once again that this information is classified,” Jordan said as he pressed the play button.
The faces on the projection began to move without audio. Jordan paused the video, tapped some icons and then played it again, this time with sound.
“My apologies,” he said over his own voice playing in the video.
“Captain Gessetti,” greeted the same man in the recording. The woman in the video sat up attentively.
“Commander Grey, hold on while I move your image to the main screen,” she said. Sanja liked her voice. She spoke with a serious tone, like someone in command. As she said this, the image suddenly changed, opening up to reveal more of the cabin as well as her handsome blond co-pilot behind her.
Damien Saljov, Sanja thought. The man’s older brother, Tracey, was an infuriating nuisance who abandoned the Navy without leave. He represented everything she hated, disloyalty, anarchy and resistance to authority. She had met with him over a week ago and left the meeting with nothing but disdain for the drunkard. That deserter should be locked away for life.
“That’s better. Now I can see you more clearly,” said the woman in the video.
“What is this about, Captain?” asked Jordan’s video recording.
Sanja expected the woman to answer but instead it was the co-pilot behind her who responded.
“Sir, we’ve reached 250 feet below sea level just outside of the Puerto Rico Trench. But we’ve encountered something. Some sort of unidentified object,” the handsome man replied. Sanja studied the room as Damien briefed the commander. Most people were curiously studying his words. This was not news to Sanja though. Although she had never seen this video recording before, she was well aware of the details.
“I asked your commander, not you, Saljov. You’re supposed to be ascending to 200 meters and returning. This is not meant to be an exploratory mission,” Jordan responded in the video. Sanja could not help chuckle at this. He was always so serious and composed.
“I apologize for Saljov’s interruption, sir, but he is right about the object. This object we discovered is concerning. It appears to be an orb of light and it is giving off extraordinary levels of heat, boiling the water around it. I can only predict this unidentified object must be manmade. I can’t think of anything natural that gives off that much energy. How do you want us to proceed?” the woman explained. At this point, all eyes were stuck to the image. Everyone in the room seemed transfixed on what was happening.
“Does the object appear hostile?” asked Jordan in the video.
“We have it in our sights through the window, sir,” the man added.
Suddenly the image of the cabin disappeared and was replaced by a forward image, an image Sanja had not yet seen. She felt her mouth open as she stared upon it and did not even think to survey the reactions of the others. All she saw was light, nothing but pure light. What is this doing in the middle of the ocean? She wondered.
“Okay, Captain, flip it back before we both go blind,” said Jordan in the video.
The image returned to the two pilots.
“Well that’s certainly something. Get as close to it as you can and take a scan. Proceed with caution and report back to us once you’re finished. I want this kept top secret. You understand? Your orders have changed. Get in, scan the device and report back to us. This is now a scouting mission. The scientists can test their depths later,” Jordan explained.
“Roger that,” responded both the woman and the man.
“Oh and Sara, try to display some professionalism. Just because you’re far from home base doesn’t mean you can swim around in your bra. This is the NavFy, not a colored zone.” Only a few moments ago Sanja would have chuckled at that comment as well, but after seeing the bright light, she was not in the mood for humor.
The hologram switched off, leaving an empty space in the center of the table. For a moment all voices were silent. Sanja guessed that most people had just now learned this news for the first time.
“There’s more,” continued Jordan. “This is where the video cuts off, but we learned more from the crew afterwards. A few minutes after this video, the craft’s connection to the Meganet was interrupted and we received a message sent through old Morse code. The message spoke of a defense system at the center of the light, a cannon emerging through a glowing orb. This weapon was high-tech, like nothing we have ever seen before. According to the message, it fired heated plasma at the craft.”
Some of the faces were now showing signs of fear. A few men standing around Sanja were even beginning to sweat. She remembered her own similar reaction to this news when she learned it 10 days ago, only moments after losing contact.
“We do not know who sent this orb, or why it is here, but the message goes on to say that the heat generated from the device caused the water to reach 800 degrees. The message suggests this device was designed to boil water in an upwards current in order to create steam on the surface, but this was only a theory.”
He looked down; reaching for what Sanja guessed must have been his personal pod. After moving his hands a bit, another holographic projection shone in the center of the table. Two young faces lit up the dark room.
“The pilots in question are Sara Gessetti, as I already mentioned, and her co-pilot Damien Saljov. Both are now reported MIA. Both Captain Gessetti and Saljov were skilled, intelligent and equipped for the mission, so we have no reason to suspect their disappearance is related to human error.”
“Commander, if I may, were their bodies found with the craft?” asked a female voice to Sanja’s left.
“They were not, Lieutenant. In fact, I believe Dr. Parnel can give you more information on the state of the craft,” he said, motioning towards Sanja. “Dr. Parnel, if you will.”
Sanja nodded and pressed forward, moving through the crowd until she stood by the table. She looked around, making sure all the important people could see her clearly. She saw Commander Jordan Grey first. Near him sat Commanders Hugo Alvarez, Peter Skylar, Linda Faulkner, even the President of the Atlantic Federation Bernard Ortega, as well as numerous faces she recognized but could not name. She had met most of these people before, many of them during the initial meeting when news of this missing vessel was first announced. But there were others she saw here now whom she did not recognize.
“Thank you, Commander,” she said to Jordan. She then turned to face the others. “I am Dr. Sanja Parnel. I am responsible for leading the investigation of the craft.”
Sanja never had fear of speaking in front of others. In fact, she rather enjoyed it. She liked being in the center of the attention. She knew she was not an attractive person. She was a short dark woman with untamable hair that refused to accept a comb. She had a crooked nose, an old wrinkled face and a thick torso. She almost always wore the same thing, a grey shirt with a black blazer and dark pants that matched. But when she got up and spoke in front of a crowd, she felt as if her appearance never mattered. She spoke with confidence and that gave her power. She did not need looks to get attention, not Sanja.
“Has your report been shared with anyone here on this Council, Dr. Parnel?” asked an older grey haired woman sitting across from her on the other side of the table. Sanja did not recognize this woman but anyone sitting around the SAR’s center table was a person of great importance.
“Yes, I have shared my findings already with several members of this Council. I was told to disclose this information only to a select group of individuals. Who these individuals were was not of my choosing,” she replied. “But to answer your question simply, the answer is yes.”
“And what are the details of your findings?” asked another voice, this belonging to Damien Daalgard, a commander Sanja had met during her last meeting with the Security Council. She was surprised that he would ask this question, as he was one of the few who received the classified report. He must just be trying to move this along, Sanja assumed.
“Yes, of course Commander Daalgard,” Sanja said. She turned around and searched for one of the members of her team behind her. “Yuri, do you have the data file?” she asked, although she could not find him in the crowd.
Yuri pushed his way through. He was a large muscular young man, one of the tallest people she knew. Sanja liked having him around. He was dim witted, but a hard worker. He carried a personal pod in his hand, preloaded with the files she needed. Right on cue, she thought as she took it from him.
“Thank you,” she said as she tapped the icons in front of her. She loaded up some images onto her pod and transferred them to the holographic projection. A 3D rendering of the craft lit up the table. “As you can see,” she continued, “this is the craft in question, the Cassidy X20 submarine prototype. You’ve all been briefed on this before, I know. But what you don’t know: this is what it looked like when my team found it on the ocean floor five days ago.” Sanja pressed more icons on her pod and the image in the center of the room changed. Now a damaged sub replaced the new looking one in the hologram. This one had heavy damage on all sides, including blast marks on the bottom. There were two gaping holes in the vehicle. One appeared messy in the front where the window was supposed to be. The other was a little more subtle, a small circular cutout in the center of the craft, right above the co-pilot’s seat.
“I assume this damage was caused by the cannon in question?” asked an obese man sitting next to the older woman who spoke earlier. Neither of them wore Navy uniforms so she assumed they belonged to the President’s staff.
“Most of the hull damage was, yes, particularly the damage done underneath the craft. The forward window we believe was damaged by the cannon but was ultimately breached by the pressure of the ocean. What we find most curious though, is this hull breach here located above the co-pilot’s seat. We do not believe this was caused by the plasma from the weapon. My team studied this with a particular interest and noted that the metal around the hole was sliced in an almost perfect circle, too exact to be caused by a chaotic weapon like a plasma cannon. Upon closer analysis, my team determined that the metal was sliced using some sort of heated saw blade or perhaps another cutting tool of that sort, which melted the edges.” Sanja tapped some more icons and the hole appeared larger on the projection. “As you can see, the metal has melted on the edges here suggesting some sort of heated apparatus.”
“Why a heated blade? Have you considered a cutting torch?” asked a man in a Navy uniform to Jordan’s right. Sanja knew she had met him before but could not remember his name.
“This cut was made quickly and efficiently. It was far too efficient to be done with a simple torch. The metal shell of the hull was almost a quarter meter thick. That means whatever it was must have been long and powerful to have made an incision like this.”
“So you’re sure this was done by a person, not by accident or caused by the plasma?” asked the older woman from earlier.
Sanja nodded. She knew her data. She had been studying this since her team had gone down to investigate five days prior. Although she did not go down herself, she was in command of the entire operation, telling her team what scans to make, what to look for, what to take pictures of and what to do. She was a forensic scientist after all, commissioned by the Navy with almost complete power to investigate the destruction of the craft. Whether they knew it or not, Sanja knew what she was talking about.
“I’m positive,” she replied, “this hole was cut on purpose, most likely after the craft had already fallen and reached the bottom.”
“What makes you say that?” asked Peter Skylar, a skinny faced commander whom Sanja never quite liked.
“The incision would require enough downward thrust to puncture the hull. If it were sinking, downward thrust like this would only push it down further, rather than cut through the metal,” she explained.
“And what were they after? Whoever they are?” asked the older woman.
“Most likely, the co-pilot, Lieutenant Saljov. There is no sign of his body and it appears chunks of his seat were removed as well, leading us to believe he was scooped up out of the vehicle by some sort of circular claw device. To explain, allow me to show you some images my team took from the foam seat.” Sanja pressed more icons on her pod causing new images to appear in the center of the table. One picture was taken from above, showing a large circular cutout in the middle of the chair. Another picture was taken from inside the craft, showing scratch marks around the inside of the hull where the apparent claw had scraped against the inside. Sanja let these pictures sink in with the members of the Council for a moment and then showed a few more, each revealing another angle of the chair. After a few more images, she turned the hologram off completely. “Ladies and gentlemen of the Council, it is my belief that Lieutenant Saljov has been taken.”
“Taken by who?” asked one voice.
“What of the captain?” asked another.
“We don’t believe Captain Gessetti was taken. The front of the craft was broken by the force of the water. Apart from the damage done from this, the captain’s seat remains perfectly intact. It is likely she escaped the craft beforehand, perhaps attempting a daring ascent to the surface.”
“And who do you think attacked it?” asked the first voice again. Sanja shook her head and let out a sigh. This was finally the point where she stopped having the answers. She did not know where the voice came from so she simply looked up towards the center of the table.
“To that, I have no answer. But whoever they are, their military capabilities are beyond our own. The technology they possess outmatches anything we have, at least to my knowledge,” she replied.
A hush fell over the room, quickly followed by quiet mumblings. Within moments, everyone in the room was busy with their own private conversations with the people sitting next to them. Only Commander Jordan Grey and President Bernard Ortega sat resolute, not leaning over to engage their neighbors on the subject.
“It must be the Pacific Station!” someone finally yelled. Sanja was surprised to hear yelling in an official meeting like this. It was as if order had broken down.
“The Indian Station!” another hollered. “They’ve always been the least equipped. They’re desperate!”
More voices began to chime in and each person’s shouts were swallowed by the next. Sanja remained resolute, standing still, trying to avoid getting caught up in the chaos. She turned around to see what her team was doing but they were lost in the crowd.
“Enough!” shouted Jordan. Sanja’s head snapped forward as he said this. His voice rang like a call to order, piercing through the chaos. She noticed that he was now standing, leaning over the table with both arms pressed firmly against it. “We are the Security Council, not a pack of school children. Those seated are given priority to speak. You all know the rules.”
The room was silent again. Sanja wondered if this was her time to speak or if Jordan was waiting for someone else to jump in. Answering her question, Peter Skylar took a deep breath and looked up towards her.
“Dr. Parnel, if our crewman was taken captive, why have we received no ransom?” he asked calmly.
All heads turned from him to her.
“Because Lieutenant Saljov was taken dead, not alive. The craft was breached well before it reached the bottom. There’s no way he could have survived the pressure. Whoever took him took a corpse,” she explained.
“And what would they want with a corpse?” the commander asked.
“I can’t say. We still don’t know who took him.”
“I’m more concerned about this plasma cannon,” Linda Faulkner cut in, raising her hand up as she spoke. “And so close to our station. Was this probe intended for surveillance? Offensive measures? Defensive measures?”
“I cannot comment on the probe. My team studied the submarine’s wreckage, not the device. Commander Grey can offer more insight onto-” Sanja was cut off before she could finish her answer.
“Why did it take so long for us to convene this meeting?” asked the older woman across from her. “Our Navy came under attack ten, 11 days ago yet we are just now holding this meeting.”
Although she directed her question towards Sanja, Jordan jumped in. This was a question better handled by the man who had organized this meeting in the first place.
“A meeting was held when we first lost contact with the crew. Only top officials were invited. President Ortega was in attendance but he did not feel his aides were necessary, Mrs. Walter. If you wanted to attend the first meeting, you should take it up with your boss. This is not an issue for the Navy,” he answered sternly. This confirmed Sanja’s suspicions of the woman. She was part of the President’s staff after all.
“But why so long?” she asked.
“It took my team several days to organize the operation and locate the craft,” Sanja responded. “And after recovering our data from the scene it took another five days to compile and analyze the evidence. We’re talking about a deep sea wreckage investigation where we were unsure of the craft’s crash site. You’re lucky we got this done in 10 days.”
“What Dr. Parnel is trying to say, is it was the opinion of the Atlantic Navy that a response meeting should not be held until all the data was analyzed. We wanted to come in with information so that nosy political aides like you could have your questions answered,” he responded, this time with a hint of distaste in his tone. Sanja knew Jordan was never fond of politicians, especially pretend politicians like political aides.
The obese man sitting next to her became visibly offended. His cheeks turned rosy and he squinted his eyes like a fat child staring at a bright monitor. The image made Sanja chuckle, though she knew it was out of place to laugh. She wondered if anyone else saw him the way she did.
“Commander,” the large man proceeded, “with all due respect, I don’t think you are treating this topic with the severity it deserves. We have just come under attack for the first time in centuries. Let’s not forget that. And we still don’t know who this attack came from. I think instead of insulting my colleague, it would be better suited for us to spend our time addressing the issue at hand.”
“With all due respect,” Peter Skylar said mockingly, “I believe we were discussing the issue at hand until your colleague questioned the commander’s actions and derailed our meeting.”
Sanja appreciated Commander Skylar coming to Jordan’s defense. She glanced over at Jordan to gauge his reaction, but his face was as emotionless as always.
“Commander, please. Let us get back to the meeting,” he said.
Suddenly a hand was raised from the table. Sanja turned her head and noticed that it came from the President himself. He had not said a word throughout the entire meeting, as was typical for him to do. But now he held his hand high and the room held its breath.
“Where did you say this probe was found?” the President asked. Hearing him speak gave the question a certain amount of heaviness to it that she did not expect.
“The crew discovered the object at around 250 meters below sea level,” Jordan responded, as resolute as always.
“That’s incredibly close to the surface,” the President added, “closer than anything we’ve seen before, since the Descent at least. I know it may be unlikely, but I don’t think we should rule out the possibility that this object may have originated from the surface and not from one of the other stations.”
The room was quiet after he said this, and for understandable reasons. Sanja had not even considered the possibility proposed by the President. Judging by the reactions around her, most others had not considered this either. It was almost unfathomable, but given these circumstances, the advanced technology, the interest in a corpse and the proximity to the surface, the theory had potential.
“Dr. Parnel, do you think there is any possibility that this is true?” asked Jordan, breaking the silence after a few seconds.
“Uhm, yes sir,” she replied, caught off guard. “It is certainly possible. I will have to go about my investigation differently with this new theory in mind, but I regret to say I am no expert on surface history. I don’t know how well I can properly evaluate the theory with my limited understanding of the topic.”
“Is there a surface historian present at this meeting today?” Mrs. Walter asked.
“Negative,” Jordan replied. “We had not anticipated needing one.” As he said this, Jordan stood up again and looked over at Sanja. “Dr. Parnel, I want you to consult an expert on surface history. Add one to your team if you must. I want you to consider the President’s theory very seriously.”
“Yes sir,” she replied.
Jordan looked around the room.
“So now that that’s settled,” he continued, “we will open the floor for open discussion. This will be orderly and calm so I want to see hands raised like grade school. Is that understood?” A few heads nodded. “Good. So are there any questions from those invited here to stand in attendance?”
And with that said, dozens of hands went up at once.
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Year 200, Atlantic Federation Calendar. The surface of the Earth has been destroyed. Humanity now lives beneath the ocean. Life is peaceful in this artificial world, but questions are raised when an experimental submarine is attacked during a routine test mission. There are no leads. For the first time in generations, humanity will have to confront what may lurk above the surface. Curious about starting a new sci-fi series? The Color of Water and Sky Preview Collection contains chapters from various books in The Color of Water and Sky series. It is the perfect way to sample the series before committing to a purchase.