Thalassa – Aqua Incognita

Cover of Aqua Incognita
Cover of Aqua Incognita

 

A little teaser – chapter 1 of Aqua Incognita:

Charity Chang did not expect to live.

The rules in Oceanopolis were very simple. Strive for the common good and the survival of the city, or die. Freeloaders, thieves, malcontents: none of those were tolerated. The sick and the old who had earnt the right to live were looked after. Others, well, if they didn’t pull their weight, the seas around the Michigan Deep were already littered with the bones of millions: a few more weren’t going to make any difference.

Hancock. Detention, Interrogation, Assessment. A windowless sentinel, watching everyone in Oceanopolis all the time. It was rare for natives of the Sunken City to be taken there; their crimes were usually easy to detect – theft, hoarding, fraud – and the punishment swift. No need to subject any Oceanopolitans to the trials that awaited the unfortunate outsider.

It was even more unusual for any Oceanopolitan who had been taken to Hancock to leave the place alive. And so Charity Chang received the news of her release with disbelief. Was this her interrogators’ latest act of torture, to offer her hope and then to crush it?

But there was no trick, and no mistake. Charity’s few possessions were returned to her, and she was released from the constant neon glare of her cell. For five weeks those four walls had seen her soul laid bare; they had echoed to every scream and every sob. It had been a place of pain and punishment. Even so, she felt intensely vulnerable as she left the cell and was escorted to the docking-bays; soft and feeble, like a crab without its shell.

A shuttle-sub was waiting for her, and her heart fluttered at the thought of freedom. Standing beside the docking-arm, a woman that Charity had never seen before, dressed in a uniform that she knew only too well: the uniform of the Commander of Oceanopolitan Military Intelligence.

To Charity Chang it was and always would be Commander Meyerhoff’s uniform. It didn’t matter what crime they had found him guilty of: the attack on MacGillycuddy’s Reef hadn’t been his idea. Far from it. But the Imperial War Council could not be seen to have made a mistake in sending the fleet to such a dubious victory. They had needed someone to blame.

“Officer Chang, I am Commander Ishigara of Oceanopolitan Military Intelligence,” the woman in Meyerhoff’s uniform said. “Welcome aboard.”

Charity felt as if she would crumple to the deck at any moment, but she stood to attention and managed a proud and patriotic salute. She was still not certain that the whole scene was not some trick, goading her with the image of Meyerhoff’s successor, seeing how she would react.

“I’ll take things from here,” Commander Ishigara directed a curt nod at the guards escorting Charity Chang.

The guards hesitated. They looked at each other with unseen eyes. Their curving, mirrored helmets were designed to reflect the guilt and torment of their captives. Faceless and expressionless they might be, but the guards’ body-language spoke volumes: the release of a prisoner went against their training and their instincts.

Commander Ishigara stepped forwards and forced the faceless guards to retreat. She gripped Charity’s arm, thin and frail beneath her uniform, as if to say ‘she is mine now’.

“This way, Officer Chang.”

The two of them entered the shuttle-sub. Now, Charity thought to herself. Now is when the charade will end, and they will come with their slender metal implements – so fine-looking, so delicate, so brutal – and drag her back to her cell.

The out-lock hatch closed behind them.

“I’m sorry,” Commander Ishigara said, helping Charity through the in-lock hatch and into the passenger-cabin. “I’ve been trying to secure your release for the past five weeks.”

Charity allowed herself to be placed into a seat. Docking-clamps disengaged. Engines whirred. She closed her eyes and felt the dizzying sense of motion, willing the sub further and further away from Hancock.

“Would you like something? Food? Drink?”

Charity could see the unspoken question in the glance that Commander Ishigara gave her: What did they do to you?

“No, thank you, Commander,” Charity’s voice was still hoarse from all the screaming. “I’m fine.”

“You will be now,” the Commander pursed her lips and hoped that she was right.

 

It was the night of the attack on MacGillycuddy’s Reef.

The towers of Oceanopolis reached up from the gloom of the Deepwater Dark, each and every one a pillar of light. Ten thousand windows glowed in celebration and triumph, twinkling through the currents like distant candles. The people of Oceanopolis, up on the edge of the Michigan Deep, had never seen anything like it before. But there had never been a day like today before.

For nearly three hundred years, the Sunken City had lived in fear of the others who had survived the fires and the floods and the end of the Old Earth. Survival had come with a price, and the cost of contact could be too much to bear.

The Oceanopolitans had been cautious. They had watched and waited, and gathered information from spies sent into Tethys. First Roanoke, the Colony that had alerted them to the existence of other survivors. Then more widely, into all the other Tethyan Colonies – so many of them, so powerful – even into Capital Colony itself. What the Oceanopolitans found dismayed them: the Tethys Federation was strong, better adapted to living in Thalassa, and with a greedy population that dwarfed that of the Sunken City.

Through their spies in Tethys, the Oceanopolitans saw what happened to rival after rival to the Federation’s power. Again and again, they witnessed the brutality of the Wire Wars, so-called because they were always fought for more supplies of metal and glass and plastic. Or so the Federation said.

Genocide. Slaughter. Slavery. Protecting the peace. Ensuring the dominance of one idea, one way to live.

For nearly three hundred years, the people of Oceanopolis had lived in constant fear of discovery and a Tethyan attack. Now, finally, they had done something about it.

The most powerful fleet they had ever built, a strikeforce assembled through the desperate sacrifice of irreplaceable living space, was returning from victory. MacGillycuddy’s Reef, the newest and closest Tethyan Colony to the Sunken City, had been utterly destroyed. The warning message had been sent; the seas between Oceanopolis and Tethys must remain aqua incognita, unknown waters.

 

Charity Chang was standing at one of the windows on floor fifty-five of New Olympic, the headquarters of Oceanopolitan Military Intelligence, surrounded by friends and colleagues from the Assessment Division. The returning Oceanopolitan fleet was just minutes away, and although the lights blazed in welcome in empty offices to either side, the Assessment Division itself was shrouded in darkness. Everyone was gathered by the windows, straining to get a first view of the returning subs.

It was with mixed emotions that Charity Chang watched. MacGillycuddy’s Reef had been her assignment. For five years she had sifted and collated and edited the drone-reports that Sullivan, the Oceanopolitan agent who had been embedded there, had sent back. The Reef was her area of expertise. She had come to know its people and its places.

She knew how Hamilton Khan, the Governor of the Reef, had been deposed. She had seen how Sherman McCarthy Anderson, sent to oversee the Colony’s accession into the Federation, had seized power. That act had been the final straw as far as Oceanopolis was concerned.

Now all of it was no more. MacGillycuddy’s Reef was a ruin, its people dead, or captured, or scattered back beyond the Frontier; back where they belonged. Of course it had all been necessary, Charity told herself. The Sunken City was weak. It had to be protected. The clans were right. Warrior One was right. It had to be done.

But Commander Meyerhoff had disagreed.

Charity sought him out among the ranks of anxious spectators. He was nowhere to be seen. She struggled through the crowds gathered twenty-deep at the windows. In the darkness behind the crowds, the rows of desks and cubicles seemed to open out into a much wider space than she was used to. She crossed it carefully and turned down a corridor. A light was on in Meyerhoff’s office. She stood in front of the door and knocked.

“Enter!”

Commander Meyerhoff was sitting at his desk wearing his full military uniform: strips of medals across his chest, the cap on his head positioned to perfection. And the office – paperwork tidied, desk neat, with no reports waiting to be read; Charity had never seen it like that before. Meyerhoff looked up when she entered, and the lines around his eyes softened the tiniest, most minute amount.

“What is it, Chang?”

“You’re not coming to watch the fleet, sir? They’ve passed the inner sonar-arrays and should be back any time now.”

Meyerhoff looked up at the clock on the wall.

“No, Chang. I’ll give it a miss. But you should be there when they get back.”

Again his eyes strayed to the clock

“Yes sir.” Chang hesitated for a moment, and Meyerhoff misunderstood the reason why.

“I’m sure you want to know what your next assignment is, Chang. I’m afraid I can’t tell you,” Meyerhoff looked apologetic. “But you’re a good assessor. I’m sure whatever it is, you’ll do a good job.”

“Thank you, sir.”

“Off you go, Chang. You don’t want to miss it.”

It was the last time she spoke to him.

 

When the outline of the first Oceanopolitan attack-sub came into view, there was a universal cheer. The party in New Olympic erupted into sudden life, a release of pent-up tension. There were wild celebrations, hugs, kisses, toasts to a safe and secure future.

And then the shapes grew sharper.

Twenty attack-subs had gone out, but only twelve were returning. They limped along, battle-scarred, with oil streaming from their wounds and half their compartments flooded. Of the eighty fin-fighter subs that had flown off to battle in neat formations, barely a handful remained.

A hushed silence crept over the onlookers. Mute and almost disbelieving they watched what was left of the fleet struggle between the wavescrapers. Friends had been aboard those subs, allied clan-members – the closest thing to family that anybody had in Oceanopolis. Losses had been inevitable, and everyone had known that. But not on this scale, not at this cost.

Victory! If this was victory, Charity didn’t want to know what defeat felt like.

She understood the true significance of the fleet’s condition more than most. MacGillycuddy’s Reef had not really been part of the Federation. Out in the wilds beyond the Frontier, far from the centres of Tethyan power and population, the Reef had been poorly defended. The statistics reeled themselves off in her head: two subs from the Federation Navy, four Colonial Militiamen, a few squadrons of battle-MANTAs. No battle-cruisers. No Mako-class destroyer-subs. No platoons of MANTArines. If this was victory, attacking even a single established Tethyan Colony inside the Frontier would be suicide. The weakness of Oceanopolis in the face of the Tethyan threat was more clear than ever.

“Hooray for Victory!” a lone voice shouted. “Hooray for Oceanopolis and aqua incognita!”

The others joined in, tentatively at first, their shouts mingling together until the whole room was roaring. And Charity joined in, but only because shouting felt better than silence.

Then, in the middle of it all, a detachment of Military Police arrived. The lights in the Assessment Division flickered on, and the scene outside vanished behind the surprised reflections in the glass. The lieutenant in charge of the detachment slid up the visor of his helmet and looked around the crowds. His men held their weapons at the ready.

“Where is Commander Meyerhoff?”

Meyerhoff’s door opened and he emerged, standing tall with his head up and his shoulders back.

No salute from the lieutenant. No greeting.

Meyerhoff just nodded at the crowds by the windows, and huddled at the centre of the policemen, he was escorted from the room.

 

The day after the destruction of MacGillycuddy’s Reef, fear of discovery seemed to have grown, not lessened. After the lavish illumination of the victory parade, the curfews and the blackouts were strictly enforced. All military leave was cancelled. The sonar-arrays were on high alert. Patrols came and went constantly. Posters went up declaring victory, but Warrior One’s speeches proclaiming a new era of peace and security were fooling nobody. Oceanopolis held its breath.

And Charity Chang held her breath, too. She had slipped through the revellers on the way home, expecting at any moment to be confronted by the Military Police. Charity arrived at her apartment without incident. She slept a fitful night, waiting for the knock on the door, but none came.

By the next morning, the mood of celebration had gone. Sweepers worked the corridors within the wavescrapers, making piles of grey confetti and tattered streamers. Charity’s cable-train was blacked-out on the way to New Olympic, and the towers of the city were almost invisible through the gloom. Out there somewhere, she knew, was Hancock, windowless, a lightless shadow, always invisible, always watching. Out there somewhere, she knew, was Commander Meyerhoff. Whatever punishment they inflicted upon him, they would never kill him. Not deliberately. Someone like him knew too much simply to be swept aside.

She entered the Assessment Division to find it already full of people; some on the end of their shift, others who had been called in early. They sat with heads down, working away on the reports that had come in from Tethys.

The drones that had come back told a story of ignorance and recrimination. Every indication was that Oceanopolis had been lucky: the stupidity of the attack had not revealed the existence of the Sunken City. In the Federation’s eyes, there was only one possible perpetrator of the destruction of MacGillycuddy’s Reef: Georgia Six. For ten years, the Tethys Federation had lived in peace, certain that its rival had been destroyed. No-one was certain anymore. Someone from Georgia Six must have survived out in the wide waters of Thalassa.

Because who else could attack them?

All the Oceanopolitans had to do was wait and watch, and let the Tethyans lose themselves in the ignorance of their own fears.

It was not enough. A mistake had been made.

That night they came for Charity Chang.

 

Charity woke. For a few moments she lay unmoving, just feeling the sheets against her skin. Then she listened. Faint sounds of coming and going. Ordinary, everyday, morning sounds. She had not been dreaming or deluded. Her release from Hancock was real.

She sat up and looked around her. The staff-dormitory at New Olympic. Not her cell. Not her apartment, either. That had gone to somebody else. Charity had not been expected to return to it. Until a new apartment was found for her, she would live at New Olympic. Easier. Better.

Safer.

The darkness came then, sinuous coils of it, thrashing like some poisonous serpent. It came from inside herself, shattered memories of the days gone by.

Charity clutched the edge of the bed and focused, breathing slowly and deeply. Blank thoughts weren’t enough to defeat the darkness; she needed a weapon. What she found was a question.

What is happening in Tethys?

Charity Chang had always been curious. Curious, but observant with it, analytical in her thinking. That was why she had been selected for the job as an Assessor. Charity battled the enemy inside herself – the enemy they had put there. She forced herself to think straight.

What is the Tethyan reaction to the attack?

She imagined the possibilities. Selected some as more likely, downgraded others. Rejected some outright. A web of possible reactions grew. Some reactions set other strands of the web humming, linking from node to node, a network of probabilities. Wherever her thoughts followed the strands, they always bunched, coming together at the same point:

Why have I been released?

Charity didn’t know for certain, but one thing was clear. The reason for her release was the credo that all Oceanopolitans lived by – because the city needed her.

 

Fifteen minutes later, Charity Chang was standing fully dressed, smart and straight to attention, like a good Oceanopolitan, before the door of Colonel Meyerhoff’s office. She rapped hard on it.

“Enter,” Commander Ishigara called.

Charity hesitated, taken suddenly by surprise, even though she had known not to expect the old familiar voice.

Meyerhoff’s office looked the same as it always had done. The same filing cabinets, the same window, the same chair, with the same wrinkles in the upholstery where Commander Meyerhoff had sat and brooded and kept his eyes on the network of spies throughout Tethys. But the presence of the woman sitting behind the desk made the office a strange and alien place.

Commander Ishigara looked up as Charity entered. A smile came quickly to her face. An honest smile, Charity decided. She wondered where Ishigara had come from: which clan, which duties she had performed previously. Not in Intelligence, that much Charity knew. Warrior One and the Imperial War Council had decided to take a keener interest in the world that Meyerhoff had ruled; it had become too independent. That independence had been useful in finding someone to blame, but now it was seen as dangerous.

Wherever Ishigara had come from, Charity knew that she could work with this woman; Ishigara had got her released from Hancock, after all.

“How are you, Chang? Sleep well?”

“Yes, Commander. Thank you.”

“Good. Please, sit.”

Charity sat.

“I am supposed to prepare an assessment of your suitability to return to your duties, Chang. I can spare you another day, perhaps, but after that… There is work to do.”

“I understand, Commander. I’m ready. No further rest will be necessary. Or welcome,” she added.

Ishigara nodded as if she understood, and her eyes darted briefly to the document lying uppermost on her desk.

“This is a summary of the situation since… since the return of the fleet.”

She held out the document, and Charity took it.

“Thank you, Commander.”

“If you have further questions, you may direct them to the division head for the relevant sector, or to me personally. You have Priority One clearance on all incoming intelligence.”

“Yes, Commander.” Charity tried not to let her surprise show: from a cell in Hancock to top-level security clearance in less than twenty four hours was something of a leap. Whatever they wanted her to do, it was something important. Even more important than the Reef had been.

“This is your new assignment, Chang.”

Commander Ishigara held out a slim folder. Somehow, Charity managed to tuck it under her arm without a curious glance at the cover.

“Return to your desk and familiarise yourself with it,” the Commander said. “Your insights from the Reef will be most useful, I’m sure. Report back to me every two hours.”

“Yes, Commander.”

Charity stood up, saluted again, and marched off back to her desk to get started.

The desk was not her old one – that, like her apartment, had been reassigned to someone else. And in turn, she had received a desk that was no longer needed, recycled from another assessor. Goodluck O’Riley, Charity recalled the name. She wondered what had happened to her.

And she wondered what the Commander had meant when she had said that Charity’s insights from the Reef would be useful for her new assignment; what use could those insights possibly be when the Reef was no more than a rusting wreck?

Charity opened the folder and looked at the title-sheet, scanning it to see where her new assignment would be located.

But her new assignment wasn’t a Colony at all. It was a person: a Pioneer who knew all about the existence of Oceanopolis – a Pioneer called Moanna Morgan.