The Big Package: Prologue
It is a quiet Tuesday afternoon in the Atlantic aboard the W.M.F Tawhiri-Taro. Maximum Safe Depth: Classified, but probably below 10 standard chains (17th century) and above 3 stadia. Cruising speed: A leisurely 80 stades/hour.
The re-fitted Russian Akula IV Class submarine Tawhiri-Taro was in terms of systems, only 18 months old out of dry dock.
Following a full structural analysis with 3D ultrasonic imaging and gamma-ray films of all critical welds, the ship had been towed to India, where the primitive Soviet pile had been junked and replaced with a smaller, higher efficiency 2nd generation thorium reactor, jump-started by the plutonium bits thoughtfully left behind after the Russian decommissioning. Cooled super-capacitors augmenting the reactor meant that the boat could sprint for upwards of 5 hours at a speed of nearly 400 stades/hour Slower, it could cruise silently and run at depths formerly only possible in bathyspheres.
Most of the weapons, electronics and control systems had been stripped out and the reactor crew trained before leaving for its final refit in Iqualuit, Nunavut where a woven, crypt-crystalline polymeric self-healing fractal nano-boride shell a thumb-length in thickness was applied, lowering the crush depth substantially and making the boat invisible to most radar or thermal imaging systems. Appropriately, the natural hull color was that of a well-baked Taro root.
Next-generation optical controls with dual manual hydraulic backups took a fraction of the space and power used by the clunky Soviet modules. Only the vacuum tube radio and sonar gear was retained, after a part by part inspection and incremental upgrade. Dropping all but two torpedo tubes, the rest converted to biosample or sensor arrays with concurrent reduction in crew size allowed the modified Akula to become downright roomy and comfortable. The teak flooring, panels and brass fittings were sanded, polished and sealed. Her larder fully stocked with yams, breadfruit, pineapple, lutefisk, sardines, dried and frozen samon and shark with bacon-flavored dulse, citrus fruits, kavagrog rations and poi, the hand-picked volunteer crew from Vanuatu, Samoa, the Hawaiian Republic, Haiti , Outer Hebrides and Canada felt ready to face any challenge on their first mission, known to most of the crew only as “Big Package Express”.
Per the newer rules of combat engagement, her weapons had a range limited to line of sight and had to be manually activated. Passive and active electronics worked to jam any automated systems, drones or “sleeper” weapons, which had been banned in most civilized nations.
It had taken six years to put together the coalition of “Little, Largely Harmless” Maritime nations, linked by long sailing traditions and a general “Live and let live: More Or Less: attitude that pre-dated the invention of paper. The Hawaiian Republic, formed 48 hours after the unsuccessful separation of Texas from the United States (and the bombing of the Alamo by Gov/General Linda H. Bush as a show of force to “The National”) had more or less gone unnoticed in Washington, though more than a few State Department officials didn't understand what to do with a hand carved outrigger canoe loaded with fresh pineapple, dried fish and Grandma utu's recipe for poi for 200.
Decided by voice vote and a tree-carrying contest, Hawaii was Big Kahuna on the Council for the next seven years, with Vanuatu or Samoa likely to follow. The other members like Greenland and Outer Hebrides grumbled that they had very little experience with tree-carrying, giving the Polynesians an advantage perceived as unfair. Seasonal Work Exchange programmes had quieted said grumbling as few Hebredian or Greenlandic politicians could complain about the use of a beach house, private garden and six months of tropical Pacific Ocean summer in the depths of their usual winter.
As it was impossible to find a crew that spoke the same native language, a compromise of sorts had been reached. All crew members without any skills in English attended an 18 week crash course that was described in the brochure as a combination language class, team and trust building retreat that taught Group Process Skills and held a dance every weekend. Injuries were generally mild. Reframing Camp was located on the Western side of Vancouver Island. It was a satellite office whose headquarters were located in the San Francisco Bay Area.
On the Bridge, events that were to take an Otherworldly turn had quietly begun. With the accidental dropping of a piece of dried bacon-flavored dulse. As chance had it, the dulse had landed next to the black and white pint-printer start button on the boat's only real time link to the outside world.
“Wahine Chief, watch where you go!” That's the direct line to Mother Schroedinger. While not fragile, I'd hate to explain to command how our only link from Mom was broken while looking for a snack!”
“Sorry Big Guy” Uma sheepishly replied. “You want some of this too?” offering a chunk of the dulse she'd found under the printer.
“Ahh.. Not right now. Though I must say, the poi was better than usual at first meal. My thanks to Scotty.”
“OK Big Guy! And Pupas To the Max”
“Pupas to the Max” to you and your family, and your cousins and all of your crops.” The Captain replied in semi-formal style to the big Island woman, Both were dressed in the standard green and brown tunic top with grass skirt and leggings. Little differentiated their uniforms than the velcro patch on the Captain’s tunic, which held the boat’s Talking Stick.
As if on cue, the paper tape from the ULF receiver began slowly chattering out a Hellschreiber GLACIAL message from Mother Schroedinger, the Mandelbrot Wavelet entangled quasi-sentient computer that was somehow always a week or so ahead of the best number-crunchers in the Civilized World. Or even Alexandria, Virginia, USA.
“What's the time tick?”
“About 62 hours out. Rest of the message follows, along with lucky numbers for the Crew for next Friday. It all should get received and uncoded in under two hours. Less if next month's Russian Power Ball picks aren't included.”
Pulling on the 1MC circuit the Captain punched the “All Stations” button. “All Hands, this is the Captain, holding the talking stick. We are getting an incoming message from Mother Schroedinger. Time tick: 62 hours standard time. All people belong big paddle, take extra sleep. No push push with dice tonight! Hammock everyone. Big Alarm, shut doors in 59 hours. Consensus is good.”
“Consensus is Good!” echoed back on the return circuit. The subtle 40 Hz. Hum of the big boat seemed to pause for a moment before resuming.
Deep in the bowels of the boat, a seemingly old woman sat at her small, ornate desk in the space that served as a library, spare parts locker and dry goods storage as she bent over a random finger-weaving yarn creation. Her gaze moved to a clock and she shuddered, blinking her eyes slowly to try and calm her nerves. The Polynesian string current charts hanging on the wall that covered the Northern Atlantic, Finland, Iceland and the open Arctic seemed to pulse with light for a second.
“So It Begins Again.” She muttered, wrapping her woolen scarf around her hands, dropping the yarn and fingering a small stone carving from her grass skirt's pouch.
The yarn bit had fallen on the deck, and in the pale amber lighting, it looked like a blue and orange squid. The stone suddenly felt very warm to the touch.
After getting an “all clear” from the signals station, the boat slowly surfaced, taking on fresh outside air for the first time in two weeks. Regardless of the claims made for the scrubbers and O2 units, sea air had a tang that couldn’t be replicated in machines. Running her bilge tanks through the reactor unit, the now sterilized water was safely discharged after being brought to ambient topside seawater temp, preventing any thermal signature from appearing on a satellite. Staying in the shadow of the iceberg covered any other thermal or other signatures that might reveal the presence of the boat to satellites or reconnaissance aircraft.
“All ahead 3. Make your course for Finland. We have eight hours topside to raise antennae , pick up email, listen to tv, and pipe in some fresh music for the next month. What’s the vote for the next few weeks of listening?”
“Split decision Sir. Had to go to 2 rounds of Consensus and check with the Big Book. Zuma wanted to have a melt-down over not being taken seriously when she asked for sea shanties. Again.”
“Consense’d out?” The Captain carefully asked, looking down at the Talking Stick velcroed to the left front placet of his tunic. Despite training, he still thought it looked like a puzzled ferret wondering why the world had just spun sideways. “Yessir, consense’d out. Whale song, Elephant talk and Zydeco with a side of Malaysian jazz and Gamelan. The next hoedown is scheduled for 2200 hours local.” “Excellent. Deploy hammocks!”
“Aye Sir. Hammocks away!”. With the push of a button, the bamboo and nylon hammock mounts unrolled sideways from the hull, allowing all crew members several hours of fresh if biting Norlant air before their next dive. Several members had brought along fishing tackle, hoping for something not frozen or dried for dinner. Others just lay back, popped open their UV shades, and watched the mile-wide icebergs drifting well South of the boat as they snoozed, safe under shades from the deadly UV radiation that was burning its way West, along with the sun.
A half dozen antenna arrays unfolded, sniffing for whatever they could catch on satellite or local broadcast. A small flexible screen unfolded in the 2nd Kahuna’s hands, as a blurry image snapped into focus.
A loud, unpleasant voice greeted him as he heard-"Fox News! Right Now! We bring you and update from the front lines. It would seem a slight clerical error was made before deployment, and a definitely non-standard shipment of gun lubricant somehow made it into the packs of all troops and our Friendly Freedom Fighting Allies in Africa.“
“Connie, I’m a bit confused. What do you mean non-standard?” “Well Craig, it seems that “gun oil” is a term used by non-Patriotic pleasure-seeking Americans to refer to a substance used... her voice dropped an octave and ten decibels “down there before disgusting intimate actions.”
“Connie, how serious is this error?”
“Craig, it means that our brave men and women won’t be able to keep their barrels and actions ready for use. Reports are coming in that Friendlies are bartering the defective “Gun Oil” for chocolate, and other things this Network Can’t Report On.”
“Does the Pentagon have a statement at this time?”
“Craig, I am informed by a source supposedly close to a PX worker at Arlington that the Pentagon has called this incident “The ram-rod lube failure” and several senior officials have been re-assigned to a base somewhere in the New Jersey Pine Barrens.” “Connie, do we have a base in the Barrens?”
“Well Craig, we do now! In a related development, the Secretary of Education announced that tens of thousands of school children have volunteered their lunches so our brave troops and Friendly Allies can be supplied with clean water, rations, and zithers. Only a left-wing sympathizer would cry about children going hungry in the midst of this developing lube crisis.”
“Thank you Connie. I’m sure that you will update us on the continuing “Ram rod lube crisis”.
“Craig, that’s the kind of hard-hitting below the belt journalism that this network is known for. I will be on the front lines in DC conducting research later tonight into this mysterious fake “gun oil” and how it can impact our lives here on the homefront”.
“And now, over to Jack with the weather!”
“Good to see you back after your cold, Craig! Today saw another entirely coincidental slide of a half mile long sheet of Antarctic ice into the Pacific Ocean, which our very own Fox Weather Bureau has said is not a sign that ice is melting. The 18th random event this year is accompanied by an entirely coincidental rise in ocean temperatures of 2 degrees Fahrenheit.” “What’s that in Celcius?” “
Celcius? Wasn’t he one of Stalin’s inner circle, in charge of making up stories about mild Russian winters?”
“Yes Jack, I think he was. No need to look this one up kiddies!”
“On the lighter side, the Goodwill Tour of Lithuanian Mimes has successfully concluded, with a total of 20 performances with only five casualties in the audience. This sets a new safety record for the year. The troop didn’t issue a statement, but did a short interpretive dance that no one in this studio understands. Those craaaaazy Lithuanians are off to a Mideast country that we don’t have on our map here at Fox! Now! Right News! So it can’t be relevant to anything at all.”
Tapping at the channel selector, the 2nd Wahine found a broadcast quite close. In fact, it was coming from the other side of the iceberg floating South of their position.
“Nigel, what’s happening today?” “Well Sasha, I’ve learned that ice bergs are very, very cold and wet. There’s no sweets shop for miles, and what’s worse, I haven’t been able to read page 3 of “The Star” for a week. Kippers go well with stout mustard and... “
“Nigel, let me stop you there for a moment. I meant to ask, what’s the situation with the massive shark migration to the South? What could possibly drive this toxic, slow but dangerous predator in the Arctic waters to flee South?”
“I’m just the football and rugby commentator for Channel 3, Sasha. Let me look-yes, yes, I can confirm that there are a lot of shark-shaped objects in scrums, heading South. They seem to be moving round in waves, as if some great Benthic coach were yelling at the lads to get their heads back in the game. Now I recall the 2018 playoffs, where the finals had to be called due to ozone rain. That was an exciting day!”
“Nigel, do try to stay with me, yah?” “Sasha said with a notable touch of annoyance in her otherwise perfectly polished BBC Reader’s Voice. “Can you describe the scrums?”
“Well, they do seem to be coming in waves and oh-look at that! Some of the big un’s have orange sucker marks all over their bodies. And I.. well... I think I can almost hear singing.”
“Nigel, sharks don’t sing. They don’t actually hear sound at all, they are just responsive to vibrations and tiny changing electrical fields in their vicinity.”
“So if I chucked my camera’s battery pack over the side they’d react?”
“Yes Nigel, but not nearly as violently as the camera crew would.”
“Back to this singing. Can you describe it?”
“Let me have a bit of a listen through the ice with this microphone. I’ll drop it down the loo pit for clarity.”
“Nigel, this may be another first for the BBC! A live remote from a loo pit on an iceberg.”
“Sasha, are you still on about the Christmas party last year? I explained to you that I have an unusual medical reaction to hard cider and disco balls.”
“Nigel, just turn on the damned microphone and pretend you are playing The Quiet Game. By Yourself”.
“Right. Let’s see-there goes a five hundred quid BBC microphone straight into the loo pit, Nigel, reporting live from an iceberg in the North Atlantic.”
The microphone fell several ells, before coming to rest on a chunk of ice. As the automatic gain setting picked up, what sounded like a low, sonorous Welsh chorus warm-up gargling at quarter speed blasted through the satellite link. It was hauntingly unfamiliar, like an echo at the back of one’s mind that had never quite died down but had never been there before. There was a vague hint of a noise like medieval horns, accompanied by a hundred or so distant swazzles.
“Nigel, sorry but we need to break away to a developing situation at Lower Fishguard in Wales. We have reports that dozens of tourists have stripped down to their shorts and are wading towards Ireland.”
“If they didn’t want to pay VAT on their purchases, all they have to do is fill out a 9-25 form and submit it to the nearest TIC, along with a scan of their passport.”
The screen flashed blue for a moment, before the feed from Wales kicked in. Several crowds of tourists had gathered seaward of a bronze statue of a pitchfork, the proud symbol of Welsh sovereignty.
“Wait. There’s someone we recognize-yes, yes it is David Icke, former football commentator, who has joined hands with several dozen people, all of whom are jigging their way down to the Sea. Many seem to be drooling and glassy eyed.”
“Well, you did say they were with David Icke, yah?” “Isn’t that the new normal for that sort? Now in my day, no one ever talked about Reptoids. Blue and silver skinned aliens yes, but no lizards. Scaly things, can’t stand em myself.”
“Nigel, we’re getting the same sort of sounds out of the Irish Sea that you are reporting on.” “
Just like the Irish-someone else does it first, then they jump into the game with their Microsoft IT Parks, deep fried potato/kippers, Roller Derbies and plasticy models of New Grange, which is all they’ve got left, after bulldozing the real one down for an open air Medieval Faire.”
“Nigel, are you feeling anything unusual at this time?”
“Ya couldn’t ask me that back in December? All women have such bad timing!”
“That’s not what I meant. Let’s keep it professional.”
“As I recall, you weren’t keen on that approach either. For all that it matters, I think I'll chuck my Nick Drake collection in favor of this utterly… wonderful song coming from the Ocean. It makes me feel as if I'm a part of something greater than myself.”Nigel had a glazed look on his eyes and was starting to hum a tune, pitched so low that he it sounded as if he were grumbling again about the Heritage Society's decision to relocate Stonehenge to Cornwall in an effort to prop up tourism.
“Do you mean like union membership or joining the Free Masons?”
“No. Nothing like those dull parties and monthly boring meetings where we all quietly walk round and round the room.. Sasha, have you ever really wondered what someone means when they say they are going to swim with the sharks? I think I’m going to follow Sir Lew’s advice, and just go for the whole thing! Here I go, Nigel, swimming with the Sharks for the BBC. Stuff that in your pipe and smoke it, Jeff Corwin.”
The camera slowly panned out to an image of a very pale middle aged British man with red hair, removing his parka, then clothes, humming an inaudible tune and finally, sliding into the ocean and onto the back of a 5 ell Greenland shark before disappearing beneath the waves, rapidly headed South and down to points unknown.
“Captain, any idea what the bleep is happening there?” “Not certain just yet. The message from Mom Schroedinger did say something about it being time to go down to the Seas Again. And to check our position by the stars tonight. Odd, since the GORIZONT is so dependable topside, and our Norlant bottom charts are accurate to five or six ells. Oh well, let’s see if that extension course in stellar navigation I took at the University of Nebraska comes in handy at nightfall or not. Pull the strings and songs for the Norlant, just in case navigation get weird.” “Kahuna Sir, I think we are already at “weird”.
North at the edge of visibility, the churning of the waters seemed to still. There were no fish to be had, either on lines or nets. 2nd Wahine pulled a water sample, sniffed at it, shrugged, then popped it into a rack and attached a bar code label.
She failed to notice the water kept swirling after the small tube had been in the rack for ten minutes, or its faint orange glow.
End- Prologue One