Introductory ‘pilot’ chapter to Orphans of the Salt – a novel in progress
“I repeat—we have arrived at Tract 16.”
Captain Dinh’s announcement was still crackling through the public intercom as Rosco Haymarket hopped three steps at a time down to the zeppelin’s observation deck, a warm bowl of aphid jelly balanced loosely in his hand. “The Royal Caucus” had spent the last six weeks flying over the New Pacific and he was eager to see something other than the curve of ocean and sky. He threw the bowl into a refuse chute and collected a set of scopes from the equipment racks. Two recovery engineers were already at the windows, their heads pressed hard against the reinforced glass.
One of them whistled. “Wonder when the first dive is,” he said.
“Yeah!” the other burped in reply.
Rosco ignored them and took up a chair. With the naked eye, the buildings looked no more impressive than a pile of debris; a curiously arranged collection of bottles and crates. But through the high magnification scopes, the glass and steel beams reached proudly towards the sun, their sharp edges shimmering as if newly constructed. Zooming in, Rosco read the fractured words at the base of the crowns: Ch–l-y T-we-r and Gr-svern-r P-ace—names of empires and powerful families lost, the only evidence of whose existence lay somewhere among the patchwork of shadows and greens churning in the shallows around the necks of the towers.
He tried to recall the sunken streets without the help of the overlay screen. “Liverpool Street, George, Pitt, Sussex… What was on Sussex again?” he heard himself say out loud. The engineers behind him snickered.
Rosco had been studying Tract 16 for the past year: its architecture and architects, streets, tunnels and utility lines, and every attempted recovery expedition (official and otherwise) since the turn of the twenty-second century. He was so intimate with the layout he could take himself on a virtual stroll down every main road, west to east, north to south, giving the exact name and address of each building, its purpose, who owned it according to the records, and even the location of the nearest hairdressing studio.
A hand clamped gently around his shoulder. “Just like you imagined, diver?”
“I’m not sure,” Rosco replied, still scrutinising the view below. “From two hundred metres with all that water in the way, it’s hard to tell.”
The hand rose to flick a switch on the barrel of the scopes and the image immediately darkened. The water around the base of the buildings turned opaque and the luminescent overlay of an immense city began to spread downwards and outwards in front of his eyes; luminescent lines of glass and wire spilled from angled roofs, crawling deeper and deeper. When they reached the ocean floor, they shot out to form streets, railway lines and gutters in every direction for several kilometres.
Rosco set down the scopes. Blinking, he turned to face Clove. She’d already changed into her starched officer’s uniform and was staring down at him with folded arms. “I’ve looked at that damn reconstruction so many times I’m starting to see it in my sleep,” he said.
“Good,” Clove said and slapped him on the back. “That’s why we picked you.”
“We? I thought you hand-picked the teams yourself.”
“Do you think you’d be here if that was true? The Union brass have got it in for you, diver. Someone must have liked what you pulled in New York.”
“I got lucky,” Rosco said.
“Modest to the last.”
“Well at least then we knew what we were after. It’s damn hard to miss a room full of gold bullion, even if it’s twenty floors below sea level. Taking the Union’s biggest ship out to a virgin Tract is another matter. I’ve never seen so many reclamation idiots in one boat before. When are you going to tell me what it is we’re looking for?”
“I told you—it’s just reconnaissance. This is the first mission into this place since the Rising. Who knows what we’ll find.”
Rosco looked up at her and scratched at his beard in disapproval.
“Hey, even I don’t get told everything,” she said and shrugged. “Dinh hardly shares the time of day. Deal with it. But if I were you, I wouldn’t worry too much about what it is they’re after. You’ll have bigger concerns. Most of this one,” she nodded towards the glistening expanse of blue, “is yet to be processed. There are still some pretty major Tracts the satellites haven’t mapped. Information that we just lost or couldn’t patch together from left over data. Mostly suburbia of course. That’ll be one of our first jobs and I can tell you, it’s not going to be a barrel of fun moving through those streets.”
“I’m surprised there’s anything left to dig for after all this time. Pirates would’ve swept through here years ago.”
“That’s what you’d think. But it’s been clean for three-quarters of a century. Nothing in or out.”
“Bullshit. What about from the mainland?”
“What mainland? Can you see one? There’s no mainland for a hundred kilometres and that’s a toxic desert. Believe me I’ve studied the sat archives too. This city’s always been too remote for a full-scale retrieval expedition, even for us. The likelihood of a lower class ship or sub making it down here through those acidic troughs, not to mention the weather and ocean swells, is zero. You’ve seen the reports. The Pacific’s become pretty antagonistic around these parts. No, this place is dead, Haymarket. What you’re looking at are just bones.”
“The biggest, wettest cemetery in the whole damn Solar System,” Rosco said.
More of the Caucaus’s rank and file shuffled in—galley staff, tank crews, demolition—and the deck soon became a rabble of whispers and pointing fingers. The remaining scopes were passed around and people jostled along the glass to get a view of the sunken cityscape. Rosco overheard them talking of buried treasure, lost tech and other valuable artefacts. One of the tank pilots, a young stalk of a man with a bushel of orange hair, was taking bets on who would be the first to net a whale shark.
“Two to one I haul first,” he cried.
“And I suppose you’ll find a mermaid in a bathing suit while you’re down there?” a demolition officer replied and laughed so hard the tools that hung from his dive belt chimed like bells.
“If I do, I’ll not be sharing her with the likes of you, demodick. That goes for my whale shark too.”
The zeppelin made a silent turn to the south and Rosco aimed the scopes at the coastline (at least where it used to be), which ran around the mouth of the old harbour. Millions of people had lived along that craggy line, and they would have had front row seats the day the Pacific ballooned like a supernova and came to swallow them. Footage salvaged from other Tracts had given them an impression of what the citizens of Tract 16 would have witnessed that day: first a siren or warning over the airwaves (in all cases, arriving too late), flocks of seabirds fleeing into west, the rattle of glass as the shock waves pulsated through their buildings, then a surging, black buttress screaming towards them from the horizon. Despite having seen footage of the destructive chaos hundreds of times, Rosco still found it impossible to reconcile the recorded images with the scene that lay before him. Aside from the tumbling swells and peaks, there was only stillness.
A horn rang through the observation deck and the crew began converging at the stairs. Rosco moved to leave, but before he could stand, Clove kicked the back of his chair. “What’s your malfunction, Haymarket?” she said. “You’ve been restless this whole journey.”
Clove folded her arms.
“OK, you don’t know anything. I believe you. Happy? It’s just… this dig’s got more red tape around it than a Union election. I’m beginning to think I’m wasting my time.”
“Bit late, isn’t it?”
“You know they picked me for Singapore.”
“Oh please. That dump has been dug a thousand times. A bake and scrape demolition job, nothing more. This, on the other hand… this is going to be a first. Don’t you want that on your record?”
“It’s not my record I’m worried about,” Rosco said under his breath.
Clove was about to reply when her collar peeped. She took a step away and cocked her head. Rosco watched as she listened to the comms link, and could tell by the way she narrowed her eyes and straightened her back she was speaking to the captain. “Acknowledged,” she said. “You,” she pointed at him, “Go get suited up. Captain Dinh wants your team ready to sink in one hour.”
“So soon. See you at briefing.” Clove spun on her heel to leave, but Rosco caught her with an outstretched boot.
“Briefing?” he said, drawing her closer to him. “I thought I’d already been briefed.”
Clove slapped his leg away and, before Rosco could intercept it, thrust a fist into his chest and seized the straps of his dive suit. She placed a knee against his groin and leaned in. The blow winded him slightly, but not enough to prevent him from growing hard. The only thing more exciting than the first drop into an unexplored Tract, he thought to himself, was bedding an officer beforehand. Rosco closed his eyes and let his neck go limp in preparation for the kiss, but he felt only the warmth of Clove’s breath as she brushed past his cheek.
“That was just practice,” she whispered into his ear. She pushed herself away and marched over to the stairs. “One hour, diver. Don’t be late. Oh, and by the way—welcome to Sydney.”