Thalassa WBTW – the Lost Prologue

The first edition of Thalassa the world beneath the waves had a prologue. I added that prologue at the last minute in an attempt to offset the deliberately mundane and slow start that I’d set out for Moanna Morgan. The book has action in it, but I wanted the beginning to reflect the background of the main character and the normality of life beneath the waves. For edition two, I cut the prologue (as well as re-jigging the first two chapters to make the beginning more upbeat). I still like the prologue, and one line is recycled in the new edition, so here it is:

Prologue

Something moved through the wide and empty waters of aqua incognita far to the north of the Federation Frontier, something big and grey and whale-shaped. But it was no whale. Its skin and bones were steel and iron, the blood in its veins was oil, fuel, hydraulic-fluid, and its eyes were made of glass – a submarine. A dead and dormant submarine. The steering-fins hung slack. The thrusters were silent. No lights showed through the observation-windows that studded its broad and gently rounded back. It was a ghost, drifting through the gloom.

The white-painted letters stencilled across the submarine’s flanks identified it as the Syracuse, a Militia patrol-sub’ out of MacGillycuddy’s Reef, the nearest and northernmost Tethyan Colony that was not yet part of the Federation. The white-painted letters were clean-edged and fresh.

Fresh and fake.

Straining ahead of the fake Syracuse was a small tow-tug. The tug looked like it was trying its hardest not to become the patrol-sub’s next meal, speeding ahead just out of reach. Strung out on control-cables behind the tug were two detachable thruster-pods, each pod locked onto a steering-fin of the impostor, one to port, one to starboard. Another tow-cable stretched back from the tug to the snub snout of the patrol-sub’, all three of the cables taut, dragging the monster through the Deep.

A man sat inside the raised glass steering-cabin of the tow-tug, making final adjustments to his course and depth. There were no official charts of aqua incognita – that was the point of ‘unknown waters’, after all – but the man knew exactly where he was, and that was right where he wanted to be.

The man said nothing because there was nobody to say anything to. He turned off the engines and sat there, slowly drifting with the current. He watched the tethers to the patrol-sub’ slacken and billow behind him and gauged the speed and the strength of the streaming waters. The man listened as intently as if he was listening to his own heartbeat. All was quiet, just the gentle creak and groan of the hull as the unseen rivers in the ocean took hold of the tug and its lifeless companion.

The man knew what those currents could do; he had felt their strength pulling him down, had tasted the burning saltwater filling his lungs. Few ever came face-to-face with the Deepwater Dark and survived, and something of the sea had remained within him; the rhythm of its ebb and flow was in his bones. Perhaps such a sense of its power was unsurprising for someone who had never felt the wind on his face.

When he had seen and heard enough, the man moved to release the thruster-pods and reel them in on their control-cables. They hopped and hurried through the water, docking with the tug’s outstretched wings. Then he disengaged the third and final mooring-cable to the sub’, and the streamlined shape that he had towed out into aqua incognita turned its nose away from him and faded into the murk.

The tug’s job was done and man wouldn’t be needing it any more. He set a course for the auto-pilot to follow and restarted the engines. Before the would-be Syracuse had completely vanished from sight, he unbuckled the safety-harness and stood up, filling the cramped space of the steering-cabin. He didn’t hurry. His movements were fluid and exact, not too fast and not too slow. There was a precise purpose to everything he did and how he did it – the precision of planning and years of training.

He pulled up the extendable helmet from the collar of his pressure-suit, adjusted the visor in front of his face, and locked it into position under his chin. Then he turned to find the access-ladder that led out of the steering-cabin, and with clockwork movements of his hands and feet he climbed down the ladder and into the hull, tock-tock-tock-tock.

The tow-tug was little more than a floating engine, but it did have a MANTA-bay, a narrow space that was almost as cramped as the steering-cabin for launching a one-man MANTA mini-sub’. The man clambered into his MANTA where it stood upright in its launch-rack. Inside, stowed in the compartment for hand-luggage, was a canvas bag. The man glanced at the bag in passing but gave it no more attention than that; he had already made sure of its contents hours before.

The man strapped himself in and checked over the flight-systems. Once he had made sure that everything was operating normally, he armed the MANTA’s torpette-cannons – a sub’ never knew what might be waiting out in aqua incognita – and reached up to lower the glass canopy that enclosed his head and shoulders. It locked with a hiss.

An alarm sounded. The steel door to the launch-tube slid shut and sealed itself tight. Ten seconds later, the out-lock hatch in the hull of the tow-tug winked open like an eye, and the MANTA rose up into the waters of the uncharted ocean. With a twitch of its steering-fins and a burst from its thrusters, the MANTA turned and twisted so that the man inside it was lying face-forwards, and sped off in the direction that the currents had taken the would-be Syracuse.

A minute later, the blurred shape of the patrol-sub’ with its fake Militia markings came into view, right where the man had thought it would be: right where he had known it would be. He flew his MANTA above the curving upper-hull of the impostor, skimming along its length all the way down to the rear steering-fins to give everything one last look-over.

He left the patrol-sub’ behind him and flew in a slow, steady circle around it, keeping it just in view as he checked one final time that he was unobserved. He was – aqua incognita was as empty as ever, just the fish and the flotsam and the restless souls of the billions who had died with the Old Earth more than a thousand years before.

The man banked his MANTA once more, giving the directional-thrusters a nudge, and came back towards the fake patrol-sub’ from below. As he came in close he cut the engines to almost nothing, feeling again how the currents streamed past him. For a few seconds he drifted with them, just to be sure. Then he kicked back into the thrust-pedals and climbed towards the patrol-sub’s MANTA-bay. One of the lower launch-hatches was already open, waiting for him. With a half-twist and a turn, he lined up his fins, pointing vertically upwards, and with a final spurt from the thrusters, he vanished inside. The launch-hatch closed, and all was quiet again except for the long drawn-out murmuring of the sea.

 

The interior of the drifting patrol-sub’ was dim and dank and cold. Very cold. The man’s breath steamed out in front of him as he raised the canopy of the MANTA and unfastened his pressure-helmet. Emergency-lighting wrapped crisp shadows around everything, and the air was sharp with the smell of rust and damp.

The sub’ was not just dead and dormant, it was deserted.

The man took the canvas bag from where he had left it and slung the carry-strap across his body. He climbed out of the MANTA, leaving it ready in its rack. There was only one way out of the MANTA-bay and the man took it with quick strides, sending steely echoes ringing out into the shadows ahead of him. He stopped halfway to the next level and drew something out from the bag that hung at his hip: a cone of grey-brown clay. A very particularly shaped cone of grey-brown clay, which he attached in a very particular position on the bulkhead.

There were people on the Federation side of the Frontier, down in Capital Colony or Cuatro Corrientes, who could tell the difference between a hull-breach due to an impact at speed and a hull-breach due to a shaped charge of thermox explosive, but the man knew how to make life difficult for them. Not that he thought it would ever come to that, what with the real Syracuse having been a Militia sub’ from an un-Federated Colony. No-one south of the Frontier would give a damn what had happened to it, and the man needed the charges to make sure that things turned out exactly as he intended.

He spiked the clay of the thermox-charge with a detonator and set it for fifteen minutes.

Two minutes later he stopped again. Once again he positioned a charge on the bulkhead. Once again he spiked it with a detonator, but this time he set it for thirteen minutes.

Every two minutes along the route to the bridge, the man stopped, precise to the second. Every two minutes he set another charge, leaving a string of them behind him, all perfectly synchronised.

With five minutes remaining on the clocks, he entered the bridge.

A quick glance through the forwards-facing observation-windows showed the ocean as deep and as blue as ever, but something darker was showing up behind the blue – the jagged outline of a submerged reef. The man from the MANTA could fly anything under the waves, but even with navigation-computers and optimised control-by-wire, a patrol-sub’ like the fake Syracuse needed a crew of at least three to guide it safely through the Deep. Luckily, guiding the sub’ safely anywhere was the last of the man’s intentions. He did, however, need to have the engines running when it hit the reef. There were some things that couldn’t be faked, and the random way a drive-shaft would plough through the hull at five thousand revolutions a minute was one of them.

The man powered up the hydrogen-splitters and started the engines. A shudder ran through the deck beneath his feet. He adjusted the thrust and the steering, making a few last-minute corrections to the drifting course that the impostor-sub’ had taken; almost literally last-minute corrections. Then he was gone.

Back down the access-ladders and gangways he went, retracing the route to the MANTA-bay past all the charges he had set on his way in.

With two minutes thirty on the clock, he was striding through the galley and into the crew’s quarters.

At two minutes, he was on the gunnery-deck.

At one minute thirty, he had entered the MANTA-bay. His MANTA stood where he had left it, canopy wide.

Tick, tick, tick.

One minute ten. The man strapped himself into the MANTA and slammed the canopy. The launch-sequence started. Lights flashed. The countdown began. The launch-tube closed around him and started to flood.

With barely fifty seconds left on the timers, the MANTA dropped from its launch-tube out into the ocean. The man kicked the thrusters to full speed and went as fast as he could away from the immovable obstacle of the submerged reef.

For forty-five seconds he headed into the Deep. Then he turned back on himself, aiming the MANTA’s strengthened and streamlined shape into the shockwave that would be coming any second…

Impact. Explosion.

Barely any delay between the two.

From where he was, the man in the MANTA could hardly see the mock-up Syracuse ramming itself into the reef. Then, in perfect synchrony, half a dozen lines of fire flickered, marking out the sub’s outline. The hydrogen-tanks ruptured first, then the oxygen-tanks. With a stuttering flash and a judder of exploding air, the patrol-sub’ blew itself inside out.

The man steeled himself as the pressure-wave slammed into his MANTA, a thud-crack-crunch, muffled but incredibly powerful, water turned almost solid. The shockwave flung him around, but the man had been ready for it, and it passed him by unscathed. Following close behind, distorted by the distance, the aftermath of the explosion: a tortured mix of screeching girders, buckling pressure-plates, and falling rock.

Where the fires still burned, the pieces of the wreck hung clear against the reef for a few seconds, as if they were surprised by the blast and what had happened to them. Then, slowly and gracefully and surprisingly gently, they settled into the silt on the submerged slopes.

The sub’ that was not the Syracuse was gone; all that remained of it was just so much twisted ironwork.

The man had seen enough. He had done his bit – the water and the fish and a few months in the silt would do the rest. When it was found, the wreck would look just like any other sub’ that had got lost and wandered into a rock in the wrong place. No questions asked, no answers sought. Case closed.

The MANTA flipped around on its axis and the man took it towards the Frontier at full speed, leaving the uncharted depths of aqua incognita to guard one more secret.