Thalassa the world beneath the waves

(sample)

by M. Jonathan Jones

Chapter 1 (Part 1)

Jason Morgan was dead. Had been dead for almost a year, lost somewhere out in aqua incognita, and his soul had gone down to the Deepwater Dark where the Blue Lady would look after it. Moanna didn't believe a word of all that. She didn't believe in the Blue Lady any more than she believed in Papa Noah, but Jason had done, and it seemed the right thing to do to honour his memory with an offering to her.

The family shrine was set in an alcove in the turning from the kitchen-diner to the sleep-vaults. A four-foot high plaster statue of the Blue Lady was there, or the Goddess of Liberty as she was also known, with her pointed crown and flaming torch.

The Blue Lady was a grown-up kind of goddess, who didn't demand constant attention like some needy teenager. There were no priests, no sacred books, no rigid sets of rules telling anyone how to behave. She was just there, always there, ready to offer hope when there was no chance of help, and protecting the Pioneers from the demons and demi-gods of the Dark.

But even though the Blue Lady was more laid-back than Papa Noah, Moanna still felt a bit apprehensive about the ritual she was about to undertake. Her parents and Jason spoke to the Blue Lady like she was someone they really knew; to Moanna, she was just a statue.

Some depictions of her were stony-faced and impassive. They had that serene look of divinity that – Moanna supposed – the faithful wanted in someone who was omniscient and omnipotent. Others had a slender slip of a smile, like a kind and sympathetic aunt who knew what her believers were going through. The Morgans' statue looked like it was afraid or on the verge of tears, full of all the sorrows of the Deep, Moanna had always thought. There was something not quite right about the eyes, and the mouth.

She opened one of the drawers in the metal base to the statue and wrote Jason's name on a strip of tissue-paper, together with her wishes that the Blue Lady should look after his soul. Then she opened another drawer and took out a box of matches and a tiny dark brown splinter of Deepwood. The splinter was exquisitely smooth, surprisingly heavy for its size, an expensive fragment of the Old Earth that had grown under the Sun and the sky and in the shadows of clouds until the tsunamis of the Tectocalypse buried it under the silt and the sludge. At least, if the old myths were true.

Clouds. Weather. All of it, a dream of the distant past. Or a nightmare. No-one from the Tethys Colonies had visited the surface for more than a thousand years, and most Tethyans didn't believe it existed at all. Water all the way up, they said, until you got to Hell itself where the Sun burnt down with its shining rays, peeling the skin from your body, scorching out your eyes, and boiling away the seas to fill what was left with poisonous gasses. Papa Noah had led their ancestors under the waves away from all that. No-one but them, a few thousand at most, had survived the fires and the floods and the toxic winds that had come afterwards from the Great Plague Deserts in the west. The Old Earth had died and a new world had been born: Thalassa, the world beneath the waves.

But maybe the surface hadn't always been the Hell that Tethyan Orthodoxy claimed, and even if it had, maybe it wasn't anymore; a thousand years was a long time in anybody's reckoning.

Moanna had seen clouds once – not for real, of course – and they had looked beautiful, not bestial. The sight of them had fascinated her.

"Where did you get this?" she had asked, staring at the old Ante-Diluvian videofilm that Jason had brought home one time – the people with their wild variety of skin and hair colours and the strange way they spoke.

He had just smiled at her. "Someone I know."

"Where did they get it?"

Another smile. "I didn't ask."

"It looks fake," Moanna had said, but she had just been saying that without really believing it. Because that was what people were supposed to say.

She had seen a fake or two before herself, full of all kinds of wild imaginings; some even claimed that the Ante-Diluvians had been able to send invisible messages across huge distances through nothing but thin air, no cables needed. Rumour – officially sanctioned rumour, Moanna suspected – had it that the videos were made by anti-Noah cults in a studio-pod out near the ruins of Georgia Six somewhere and smuggled from Colony to Colony. They sold them for a dollar apiece, which said it all: a thousand year-old film, salvaged from the silt, made good again, and sold for a dollar. A dollar – yeah, right.

But this time the videofilm had been different, too muted in some ways, too fantastic in others. It hadn't been trying to impress like some of the other stuff; it just was.

"It's no fake," Jason had replied.

"Well, you better not let mom and dad see you've got this," Moanna had said.

But she had carried on watching anyway, transfixed by the swirling, smoky shapes she saw floating above the people and their air-free existence. Clouds. Not water and not air, but both and neither at the same time. How could they all walk around with their eyes on the ground, she thought? If she had been an Ante-Diluvian, she would have spent all day looking up.

But that was all long ago now. Long ago and far away, in that country of the mind where the dead still walk, and Jason was lost out in aqua incognita, and only the Blue Lady knew where.

Moanna wrapped the splinter of Deepwood in the tissue-paper and rang the bell on the altar.

"Um, yeah, so… It's me, Blue Lady… Moanna Morgan," she fumbled with the slip of paper and almost tore it. "I just wanted you to… (no, wanted was not right – you don't tell a goddess what you want) …I just wanted to ask you if you could look after my brother, Jason Morgan… his soul, I mean, down there in the Dark."

She stared at the empty eyes and the parted lips of the statue as if she was waiting for an answer. But the Blue Lady said nothing.

"Anyway," Moanna went on. "That would be really kind of you. So if you could do it, I'd be grateful. Thank you."

Still no answer. No voice in her head. No feeling of succour and support. Just a statue.

The match rasped across the strip of sandpaper on the side of the box and flared into flame. Moanna touched it gently against the wrapped-up parcel of the Deepwood splinter, and laid the match and the parcel in a tray at the Blue Lady's feet. The splinter of Deepwood smouldered for a little while before the flames raced over it, filling the H-Pod with its rich, earthy fumes. The ventilators juddered on to carry away the smoke, and somewhere it was mixed with carbon dioxide from the scrubbers and waste-water, and pumped out through the vents, drifting away with the currents all the way to the Blue Lady herself, wherever she was.

And Moanna just stood there, feeling a bit silly, as if she was play-acting. It made her feel like a cheat and a fraud.

"Sorry, Jase," she mumbled to herself, but quietly so that the Blue Lady couldn't hear her.

Duty done, Moanna wandered back into the kitchen-diner and her half-finished cup of tea-weed. The place was a wasteland. There were dishes and saucepans left unwashed from the previous night's dinner, plus the ones from that morning's breakfast, and a couple of things from lunch too. Dirty forks and knives and spoons lay scattered haphazardly on the tables and counters, like casualties from some terrible battle, and used mugs littered just about every available surface. Moanna could hardly believe that she had made all that mess on her own. But washing the dishes would have to wait. It was getting dark.

The teletalk buzzed over by the kitchen-counter. Moanna put her mug of tea down on the window-sill, and walked across the habitation-module to answer it. She picked up the handset and pressed the talk button.

"Hello? Moanna Morgan speaking."

"Hey, Mo'!" Jenn Anderson's voiced crackled through the receiver. "How's everything back home?"

"Hey Jenn!" Moanna replied. "All good here. How's things with you?"

There was a slight delay on the line, a gap filled with pops and hisses as the signal was carried through hundreds of miles of cable all the way from distant Capital Colony, perched on the drowned reefs overlooking the Florida Deep.

"Mom and Carrie have been driving me nuts with all the shopping," Jenn complained. "They are such bubble-heads! Seriously, I can't wait till we get back. Even thirty hours with bad food and worse air in the shuttle-sub' will be preferable to another trip to the boutiques of the Laguna de l'Oro. We spend so much time there, I have no idea why we bothered paying for the hotel!"

Moanna smiled a wry smile. Everyone else she knew would have jumped at the chance to spend a few weeks anywhere on the 'civilised' side of the Frontier, let alone in the most expensive hotel in Capital Colony itself. But not Jenn Anderson.

"So you're having a great time and I should be really jealous."

Pause. Crackle. Splutter. "Yeah, well, back the day after tomorrow, thank Noah," Jenn said. "Come for dinner and stay over, then Carrie can bore you with all her talk about new-look pressure-helmets and how hip-fin skirts are back in fashion instead of me."

"I'd love to, Jenn, only I can't stay over right now. I've got too many things to do around the place."

Moanna read down the handwritten list of chores her mom had left pinned to the noticeboard next to the kitchen-counter and skipped guiltily past the three separate mentions of 'tidy up after yourself!'.

"I have to go and bring in the lobster-creels soon," she said, and glanced through the windows at the fading light.

"You're going out?" There was a trace of envy in Jenn's voice.

"Yeah. The traps have been out since yesterday."

"Sounds awesome! Way better than shopping or some stuck-up dinner someplace!"

"As plans for the evening go, it does take some beating," Moanna agreed, but with only half a laugh. "I have to tow the full creels back in, and then spend as long as it takes in the processing-module bagging the little critters."

"Trust me, I'd take that over another fashion show," Jenn replied. "Well, as soon as your folks get back from the harvest you can stay. But come for dinner when we get back anyway… Wait, my mom wants a word."

There was a muffled click and the sound of the handset being passed over.

"Moanna, dear," Abilene Anderson's voice purred through the receiver, all flashing teeth and beauty-queen lip-gloss. The pops and crackles on the line vanished, as if they knew what was good for them. "I was trying to ignore Jennica's ungrateful tirade, but I couldn't help overhearing… Did I hear right: you're going out by yourself right now, just before nightfall?"

"That's right, Mrs Anderson."

"In your MANTA?" There was a note of alarm in the voice, a barely suppressed shudder that survived the transmission through the many miles of cable.

"Yes, Mrs Anderson," Moanna replied. "In my MANTA."

MANTAs – Mono-personal AquaNautical Transport Appliances, as the instructor at school insisted they be called – were the mainstay of a Pioneer existence. Moanna had been flying hers every day since the age of six, when her parents had fitted extensions to the thrust-pedals so that she could reach them. Back then, the Colony of MacGillycuddy's Reef had been much smaller, and the Morgans' H-Pod had been even more remote, perched high on its ridge close to the Perimeter. Shopping at the market, visiting friends, or going to school meant a MANTA trip of a decent duration through the open sea to reach the nearest docking-bay. Even now that the Colony had grown so much, the Morgans still lived apart from everyone else; there was no dry-walk connection anywhere.

But the Andersons were Colonists from the Federation, and even after five years of living at MacGillycuddy's Reef, Mrs Anderson still wasn't used to the Frontier way of life. For her, the existence of the dark waters beyond the Colony Perimeter was something she preferred to forget. Almost everyone raised in the affluent and long-standing deepwater Colonies of the south viewed MANTAs as old-fashioned and dangerous; iron coffins, they called them.

Down there, north of the Florida Deep, there were places where two or three Colonies seemed to have merged into one, with miles and miles of fencing and wide areas of carefully managed reefs dotted with habitation-condos. Most settlements were linked together by dry-walk connections or tunnel-trains, so that even a trip in a shuttle-sub' was regarded as a hazardous inconvenience. It was only the lure of society balls and the unrivalled shopping opportunities offered by the Laguna de l'Oro that could persuade Mrs Anderson to make the long journey back to Capital Colony every six months. To someone like her, the prospect of a MANTA trip outside the Perimeter was tantamount to a death sentence.

"I have to go in my MANTA," Moanna explained. "My parents took the harvester-sub' with them. But I'll be fine, really, Mrs Anderson. You don't have to worry. I have my grade five now, and my MANTA has an auto-buddy."

"Well, we're all very proud of you getting your grade five," Mrs Anderson said, but there was a distinct note of disapproval, rather than anything resembling pride, attached to that comment. "Even so, I really don't think you should go out beyond the Perimeter on your own."

"I'll be fine, honestly," Moanna repeated. "I appreciate your concern, but it's just routine for me. It's not good to leave the catch out so long. If there's more than one lobster in a creel they fight and lose claws, you see. Besides," she added, looking at that list again, "my parents asked me to before they left."

There was silence, apart from a weak flutter on the line, a silence that stretched a few seconds longer even than the time-delay.

"Well, I'm sure your parents know best," Mrs Anderson managed to say, in a tone of voice which undeniably communicated the opposite. "But still. Let me call Douglas."

"Is Douglas back already?" Moanna struggled to sound only vaguely interested. She knew already that Douglas was back; she'd checked the arrivals-boards for the shuttles when she left the docking-bay on her way home from the market.

"Yes, he and my husband arrived back at MacGillycuddy's Reef a few hours ago," Mrs Anderson replied. "I'll call him right away. He can… buddy you. If that's the right expression."

Abilene Anderson meant well enough, and if she hadn't thought before about how Moanna might spend three weeks alone in the Morgans' H-Pod while her parents were away at the harvest, now that she did think about it, there was no way she could let things rest.

And if Moanna had doubted how seriously concerned Mrs Anderson was about her proposed MANTA-trip, the suggestion that Douglas Anderson 'buddy' her out beyond the Perimeter settled it. Normally, Mrs Anderson would not have encouraged her son and Moanna to spend any more time in each other's presence than was absolutely necessary. Even if that time was spent separated by several yards of cold, deep sea. Moanna could almost hear the sounds of the mental and emotional struggle going on at the other end of the line.

But Douglas was such a sensible boy, Abilene Anderson reassured herself, and as fond as she was of Moanna, he couldn't possibly prefer a Pioneer's daughter to the genteel and well-connected young ladies they had met in Capital Colony… The more she thought about her idea, the more sure she was that she was right; she usually was, after all.

"I'll call Douglas right now," she said, and even if Moanna had felt inclined to object any more, it was clear that she would only be wasting her breath.

And so the whole matter was decided. Jenn was allowed a brief and amused 'goodbye', and then Mrs Anderson took charge of the teletalk so that she could arrange everything.

Moanna left her mug where it was and dashed to her room. It would take Douglas a good fifteen minutes to make the trip out from the High Hub where the Andersons lived to the Morgans' H-Pod, barely enough time for her to change and get ready. Her new pressure-suit wouldn't really be visible through the canopy of her MANTA, and Douglas wouldn't see much of her hair either with her pressure-helmet up, but that didn't stop her fussing in front of the mirror all the same. After ten minutes, she decided it would just have to do – all except those ultramarine blue eyes of hers, but there was nothing anyone could do about them, anyway.

Still fiddling with the collar of her pressure-suit, Moanna left the habitation-module and walked down the long central corridor to the far end of the H-Pod where the MANTA-bay was located. She ducked through the pressure-hatch and closed it behind her. The lights flickered on in the MANTA-bay and the two MANTAs in their launch-racks seemed to stand to attention.

Fifteen feet tall, they were as still and solemn as if they were statues honouring some ancient Pioneer god, half-man, half-fish. Man was mimicked in the MANTAs' upright stature, the barrel-chest, and the shoulders that slanted up to the transparent, bullet-shaped head of the canopy. But the lines of the MANTAs were fish-like, curving and clean; the stubby wings of lateral-fins swept out below the shoulders instead of arms, and the body stood not on two legs, but on a single solid tail that carried the rear thruster-arrays and steering-finlets. MANTAs looked like what they were: a human's solution to the problem of being a fish.

Two racks were empty; Moanna's parents had taken their MANTAs with them to the harvest. Her own MANTA was still dripping from the return flight home from the market just an hour before, the glare of the lights reflected in its open canopy and across its smooth, hydrodynamic body. The other MANTA had been her brother Jason's.

It still felt sometimes like he would come home. Nearly a year – a long time set against her fifteen years of age – and Moanna wondered when that feeling would fade, and whether she really wanted it to.

Jason had been away before for weeks at a time since he had joined the Militia, but the gap he had left behind on those occasions had been inside the family, somehow – an absence of something familiar, odd, but no more than that.

And Moanna hated to admit it now, but the gap had even been a comfortable one once she had got used to it: a little more elbow-room around the table, less of a wait for the bathroom, no-one hogging the TV. Now the emptiness of Jason's absence was always there, and it felt like it was outside the family, surrounding Moanna and her parents, pushing them all closer together. Too close, sometimes.

Moanna knew it had hurt her parents that she was spending her harvest-holidays at MacGillycuddy's Reef while they went off to the sea-grass prairies on their own, but she had stood her ground. She needed the time alone. Time to think. Time to feel. Time to get used to how things had changed, and how she had changed because of them. She loved her mom and dad dearly, and when they were around, she couldn't let them see how much Jason's death had affected her, so she didn't really know herself. When they were there, she wanted to be the same person that she had been before. But she wasn't. Not really.

And 'staying home' had come at a price. Even that comment had caused more than one argument.

"Home?" her dad had said, with an indignant splutter. "Home? This dry-walker paradise isn't your home, Mo'! You're a Pioneer – out there in the prairies is your home!"

Mr Morgan really meant it too. Periodically, he would check the H-Pod's engines and make sure that the landing-legs were ready to retract. He often said the Colony was getting too big, too crowded, and that they should just take off for the wide-open seas before it became part of the Federation. Even getting a teletalk had been a hard-won concession. Her mom understood a little better – both Moanna and Jason had lived in the shadow of MacGillycuddy's Reef all their lives, and Jason had even died in its service; it was their home, however Mr and Mrs Morgan felt about it.

As Moanna passed Jason's MANTA in its launch-rack she gave it a pat – as if that did any good.

She checked her own MANTA over, even though it had been standing in its rack for barely an hour. All the steering-fins looked fine, no weeds or line snagged around them, and the ballast-vents were all clear. Moanna tugged the extendable helmet of her pressure-suit out from its hiding-place in the high collar behind her head and slid the clear plastic visor down over her face to fasten it at her throat. Then she unplugged the umbilical-cables and climbed up the access-ladder to where the hollow barrel-chest of the MANTA puffed out.

At the top of the ladder, she ducked under the open canopy that formed the MANTA's head and chest and stepped over the sill to clamber inside the body. She had no problems reaching the thruster-pedals now; her legs slotted down until the instrument-displays in the sill came up to her waist.

Strapping herself into the flight-harness, Moanna ran through the pre-flight checks. She listened to the huffing and puffing of the ballast-pumps and the whirr of the directional-thrusters, waggled the stubby wings that flared out from the MANTA's shoulders, and steered the ventral, caudal, and dorsal fins through their full range of movement. Then she was good to go.

She reached up for the transparent canopy and pulled it down in front of her, slamming it hard and locking it. There was a hiss as the cockpit pressurised. All lights were green. Everything was ready. It was time to fly. She hit the launch button.

"Launch-sequence activated," a recording of her mom's voice burbled through the loudspeaker. "I hope you remembered to go to the bathroom."

"Yes, mom."

Moanna checked the straps of the flight-harness one last time and wished that she had brought a hand-mirror to see what she looked like with the helmet on. Or maybe it was better that she hadn't – helmet-hair was never a good look.

Behind her MANTA, the in-lock hatch to the launch-tube slid open.

"And did you wash your hands?" the recording asked.

Motors growled and the MANTA-rack rumbled backwards into the vertical launch-tube. The in-lock hatch closed, sealing Moanna and her MANTA inside.

"Launch in ten seconds," her mom's voice said, and the lights in the launch-tube started to flash. At least, most of them did. There was always one bulb her dad needed to replace, but he could never remember which one it was. Moanna made a mental note to put a dab of sealant on it as a reminder when she got back. Like she always did.

Then she heard them all, a chorus of Morgan voices, her younger, gap-toothed self, her mom and dad, and a barely teenaged Jason, his voice wobbling between high and low, shouting the numbers together as the water rushed into the launch-tube. She remembered the day they had made that recording; Jason counting out of order so they had to keep re-doing it, her own fits of giggles, and the horror of hearing what her own voice sounded like.

Moanna watched the water-level rise in the launch-chamber – blue-green and bubbling, it climbed rapidly up the strengthened glass of the canopy in front of her eyes. That was the point at which Tanner Harris had needed to be rescued from the school training-MANTA during basic flight-lessons two years before. Lots of people hated being in a flooding launch-tube, but Moanna liked the gurgle and plop and the rising note that the waters made as they filled the empty space. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, every time.

"Five!" She turned on the MANTA's flight-lights and the inside of the chamber blazed white all around her.

"Four!" The Morgans' voices were muffled mid-word as water flooded the launch-tube completely.

"Three!" There was a thud and a click as the out-lock hatch above her started to rotate open.

"Two!" Moanna released the docking-clamps that were pinning her MANTA to the rack.

"One!" A last swirl of silvery bubbles spiralled up past the MANTA, and she hit the thrusters and went with them, racing them up the launch-tube and out into the ocean.