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 The Only Thing That Counts

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Anthony van
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PostSubject: The Only Thing That Counts   Mon Oct 09, 2017 10:12 pm

Chapter seven – Exit                        

            Looking out through the thick glass panels of the control room Steve saw the dark water wash over the submarine with minimal turbulence. Instantaneously lights lit up at the bow of the craft, illuminating a hazy storm of tiny creatures and sediment particles. Glistening obsidian outcrops were like giant flecks in the charcoal blackness of the tunnel walls. They both sat transfixed as the ship glided through the murky depths. After barely minutes of easing through the larger enclosed chasm, the quiet thrumming of motors reverberated with increasing volume off the narrowing walls. Steve felt acutely vulnerable in relying on the computerised navigation in the confined space of the tunnel.

“Have you been in this sub before?” Steve asked, breaking the stillness between them.

“Yeah, that’s the way most of us got onto the base. In fact I don’t know what the other entry looks like.”

“So where are you from?”

“Upstate New York,” his reply was unembellished.

            They spent a few moments finding out family details about each other when the light from outside the hull gradually improved. Steve also learned, once they had emerged, that Malcolm recently applied for special service in the marines and gained promotion to corporal along with the transfer to what was referred to as a highly secret research project. He found out that the base served as a research centre for an expanding Lunar base of which he’d seen a number of photos. Steve was about to quiz him on details of the Lunar facility when the female voice sounded from the speaker in the helm console.

“Please insert destination coordinates.”

“Very helpful isn’t it?”  Steve looked around, “Where would I find the charts?” he continued.

“Try that,” said Malcolm pointing to the neighbouring screen.

On the indicated monitor Steve located computerised charts. The current GPS reading was now showing on the top of the screen. He whistled softly as he realised how far he had travelled from the factory entrance. Placing a cursor on a location familiar to him Steve called out the latitude and longitude. Malcolm typed in the designated reference as a man who was used to following orders, before considering his new situation and asking the obvious.

“Where are we heading?”

“Port Westbourne. We should get some reaction when people see this,” Steve gestured with his arm and smiled, “It should cause quite a stir.”

            A higher pitched, muffled whine was evidence of the increased revolutions of the turbines providing the driving force. They felt the acceleration in their seats and watched the dark, blue-green water rush by. Sea creatures became little more than a blur. At one point a pod of dolphins cavorted skilfully across the bow, gaining some impetus from the underwater bow wave. The exhilaration of their escape, combined with the delight of witnessing schools of silver fish darting in choreographed synchronisation, seemed to banish the reality of their situation. The glimmering fish flashing as one, white, and silver and then grey, the ease of their escape and the power of the vessel, all added to the lightness of their mood.

            Steve, looking ahead to what might be, turned with a serious face to Malcolm and shared his thoughts, “You’re going to be an important witness to what has happened. I hope you’re ready for the ruckus this will cause.”

“Yeah, you’re right. I bet General Roberts would be happy to get rid of me.”

“Do you think he’d try?” Steve asked concerned.

“This general has been running a covert operation, no, more than that, he’s been running a secret agenda in a fully operational base on foreign soil. He’d attempt anything.”

“Do you think he’s got agents working security?”

“I bet he’s got a few people checking out for any possible leaks.”

Steve reflected quietly for a few minutes. They would have to be careful.

“We might have to hide you out somewhere Mal, and only let those we can trust know, and only then at the last possible moment.”

“You’re scaring me Steve,” he said with a wry grin.

Steve appreciated the bravado but continued, “…Just thought you should be prepared for what might be coming.”

As an afterthought he added, “You don’t think your government is behind all this?”

Malcolm who was now sounding much older than his age replied. “It’s possible. There are so many groups who have been accused of having secret programs, but I doubt it. As far as I know most of the secret research facilities are on US soil.”

“Until now.”

“Well, they have had secretive communications bases around the world, so I suppose this was the next step. But it was not designed for this... I’m sure.”

“So you’re saying someone’s hijacked the program.” 

            They were quiet in their own thoughts for some time as they sped toward the programmed destination.

            Later, at one of the computers, Steve read some of the files he’d retrieved from Paul’s computer. Every file was accessible thanks to the password which he was given by Paul. He was astounded by the description of a moon base. There were plans and photos of multiple domes and connecting tubes. There were docking bays, research modules, and hexagonal greenhouse pods forming the initial structure of a large interconnected network. There were transport sections, a communication centre and numerous blocks related to establishing a self-sufficient community. Overhead photos showed banks of solar cell arrays, spherical water and air reservoirs, several spheres tagged ‘Oxygen’ and ‘Hydrogen’ and a community dome that had sectors labelled as residences, offices, stores, recreation, and even an area labelled ‘arboretum’.

            Malcolm stood looking over his shoulder making appreciative comments, as much of this information was new to him as well. They were even more intrigued by diagrams and technical data relating to the Lunar Shuttle labelled ‘Transport 1’.

The propulsion system, which at first was a bit of a mystery to Steve, seemed to have a nuclear power source.  It generated a plasma drive by converting hydrogen gas released from storage tanks holding the liquid form, to an accelerated ion stream. This was all done in a strongly confining magnetic field. Initially, a combination of focused lasers and sympathetically tuned radio waves acted on the stream to produce highly energetic charged particles. The particles were then vented along a tightly controlled magnetically induced corridor that reduced in size to the exhaust thrusters. According to the specs the nuclear fuel rods would last for several journeys, while each base manufactured its own store of super cooled liquid Hydrogen.

            Malcolm finally tired of following all the technical records and headed toward the stern. He spoke over his shoulder as he receded through the hatch, “I’m checking out the mess for something to eat. Do you want anything?”

“Not just yet. I’ll grab some later.” Steve continued to scrutinise the information.

A short time later Malcolm returned with an outsized sandwich and a can of drink. Glancing at the screen again, “It’s all a bit unbelievable isn’t it?” mumbled Malcolm, resuming his seat at the helm. “I mean does this place really exist?”

Steve was scanning some text files. “It looks like it, doesn’t it?” He turned to look directly at Malcolm, “I sure would like to see it in person.”

“Yeah, me too.”

“That bread okay? I mean how old is it?”

“It’s fine. I took it out of the freezer and zapped it in the microwave.”

            When he eventually finishing his sandwich, Malcolm put his feet up on the adjacent chair and pulled his cap over his eyes and muttered, “Wake me when we get there.”

 

Steve read some of Paul’s comments in a digital diary:

It appears his program of creating a secret base for research and development of a sustainable lunar community and viable transport system was a charade for setting up an escape settlement on the moon. Perhaps he plans to stay there till it is safe and then maybe he has ambitions to take command of what, if anything is left on Earth. But, it’s weird, I’ve met the General once and I wouldn’t have picked him as anything but humanitarian.

 

            He smiled at a later paragraph at Paul’s misinformation. How by changing reports about the virus, saying that it may linger several days instead of till the corpse had grown cold, might have created some time for their incursion.

            A little less than ninety kilometres down the coast to the west the craft unexpectedly slowed to a halt. It seemed to be ‘parked underwater’. The monotonous female voice intruded into the sudden, disturbing calm.

‘You cannot go beyond this point without overriding security restrictions. Please enter the authorisation password to proceed.’

Malcolm checked the navigation options on the screen. Annotations on the screen informed him that it was deemed ‘unsafe to surface in restricted areas without security authorisation.

‘Do we try some passwords?” Malcolm said, fingers poised to display his code breaking talents.

“No…” Steve murmured, “This contraption is too smart. I’m beginning to think we’re not home free yet. It may be reporting our position right now. What do you think will happen if we start feeding in incorrect passwords?”

“It might crash.”

“Worse than that… It may be programmed to take some form of action. Lock up, head back, signal an alarm… who knows?”

“So what do we do?” Malcolm was looking for a lead from Steve.

“What do we do…?’ he stared blankly. His face becoming more resolute as an idea germinated. “The underwater transfer airlock… we could put on some wet suits and swim out. Do you know anything about scuba diving?”

“I’ve done a little bit. How deep are we?” There was a sound of caution in Malcolm’s voice.

            Steve read some of the gauges. “Sixty feet, about twenty metres.” …he converted for his own benefit. “I have no idea. Can we do that?”

“Sixty feet is manageable. We should get to it straight away if you’re right about the command centre being alerted.”

“Well. I’m just guessing, but I think it’s likely, especially after the security controls that are engaged already.”

            As they moved Malcolm motioned with his head, “What about him?”

“Not much we can do, we’ll have to leave him.” Steve breathed a prayer of thanks for what Paul had done. They grabbed disks, the data pin and the isolation suit before Steve led Malcolm down the vertical ladder of the access hatch. There was evident tension and anxious haste as their clomping footsteps tracked their progress. The metallic thumping only stopped when they arrived at the airlock in the lower level. Quickly undressing and donning scuba gear, Malcolm gave Steve a quick tutorial on some basic safety procedures and some necessary information to enable him to survive the ascent.

            Clothes and disks etcetera were packed in a water tight bag found amongst the diving stores. Nervous with trepidation Steve stepped into the air lock.

“You’re sure we can do this?”

Malcolm nodded. “Just remember to breathe normally, relax and we’ll swim up together.”

            Steve took a few more steps and was closely followed by Malcolm who carefully secured the entry. After pressing a large knob a screen lit up declaring ‘Operating Diving Bell’. This was followed by the statement: ‘Matching Sea Pressure”.

“What’s happening?” Steve asked as events took a different direction to what he expected.

“Watch.” was Malcolm’s economic reply as he motioned for them to stand near the entry.

            Steve had been expecting what he had visualised would happen, something like what he’d seen in the movies; water filling the airlock and then opening a hatch and swimming out. That’s not what happened. Air was being pumped into the airlock. When the air had finished pumping into the sealed container he felt a decidedly uncomfortable pain around his ears. This eased as they slowly gained some sort of pressure equilibrium. All of a sudden there was a low pitched whir and part of the floor slid back open to the ocean around them. The surprise of this prevented him from drawing the logical connection between this apparatus and the designated name ‘Diving Bell’, something he would have done quickly in his more lucid moments.

            “You go first and I’ll follow with the bag. Don’t forget to breathe slowly and deeply. Take your time going up. I’ll be right behind you.” Malcolm was speaking with authority about things he knew and the recovery of his confidence was evident in his movements.

            Steve nodded and with a look of determination adjusted his face mask and inserted the breathing mouthpiece. He climbed down a small ladder into water lit up by small recessed lamps on either side of the portal. The water was cold. He was up to his waist when he decided it might be better to fall back into the water. Just as he was about to step off the ladder there was a sudden loud beeping alarm. The sliding plate started to close swiftly. At the same time Steve let go, splashing into the depths and trying to avoid the heavy plate. He felt a heavy thump on his head almost knocking him senseless. Groggy and confused he was now submerged and shut out of the submarine by the startling closure of the panel. Searing pain stabbed his skull. Ephemeral, translucent spots darted across his vision. His displaced face mask was leaking water onto his face and he spluttered as he drew the first of the salt water into his mouth. Still disoriented, in mounting panic, he was propelling himself madly with flipper clad feet. Through the intense, blanketing darkness he sensed the vessel rushing past. The water boiled with turbulence. Refixing his mask while expelling as much water as he could, he realised that the blackness was caused by the fact he was squeezing his eyes shut!

            He forced his eyes slowly open, still feeling the pain, which was now a steady stab in his head. When his vision cleared he saw no sign of the craft, just the grey-green vault of the waters above. He felt entirely alone in the expanse of the ocean for just a second. And then, some premonition caused him to pivot about. He spun, trying to ignore his aching head. Heading directly at him at more than thirty knots was the dark form of the submarine. He swam with every ounce of strength to the left of the approaching ship. It changed course lining him up. Closer and closer it charged. The glow of the helm was apparent, slightly to his right, as Steve concluded that impact was inescapable. Kicking wildly, he barely avoided the main hull and attempted to brace himself for collision with the sleek starboard fin. Quickly Steve positioned himself horizontally, inverted so the tanks were a buffer for his body. He was hardly in position when the fin crashed into him. It was a glancing blow on the left arm. His head was ringing from the metallic clang of the tanks taking the bulk of the force.

            The whole encounter, though seeming to take an eternity in his mind, was over in seconds. He tumbled through a blizzard of air bubbles from the punctured tank and a trailing haze of turbulence from the receding vessel. Stunned but still conscious, he tried to gain his bearings. One thought registered—bubbles floated up! Gulping air from his rapidly depleting tanks, Steve strove for the surface. His arm stung as the salt water aggravated an open wound. On and on he stroked upward, no longer able to draw air from his tanks. His lungs demanded air. His chest ached and strained and his lungs felt as if they would burst, until finally, breaking the surface, he sucked in the life sustaining atmosphere. Bobbing up and down in the uneven swell he gasped the cold air greedily. Wheezing, bruised and cut, but still alive, he revelled in the emotional high and relief from the narrow scrape. The adrenalin still flushing through him, he blessed the hand that preserved him.
            In time the illusion of safety left him. A quick scan around revealed some of the hills silhouetted against the setting sun and the faint features along the distant shore line. He grimaced as his body attempted to move him in the direction of the coast about a kilometre away. Using numbing fingers, it was a painful chore to discard the useless bulky tanks. Eventually he was free of them. The cold choppy waves occasionally obscured his vision as he tried to determine a point of reference. If he could see a light, or the white structure it was on, it would indicate the location of a lengthy pier he knew was in the area. Through the waves to his left he spotted it. Then, seeing the dark red of the blood seeping from his arm, Steve struck out with panicky haste for the light tower at the end of the pier. ‘Sharks’! That was the word that was uppermost in his mind. Ignoring the pain that wracked his body, he kicked and stroked with as much effort as he could muster. Very soon he tired from his frenetic thrashing. The light tower was still a long way off. The fatigue forced him to reason that he was probably better off swimming slowly, rather than attracting attention. Sharks attack flailing creatures didn’t they? Or did they smell blood first? Pragmatically, he settled into a steady breaststroke. He couldn’t shake the anxiety but he resigned himself to the fact that if there were sharks nearby, there was little he could do.
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