For my first post of 2016, I continue the preview of Jack Scarlet: Deepfire with Chapter 3. The below will make more sense if you read Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 first … Chapter 3 starts to connect the dots between the mysterious disappearing ship in Chapter 1 and our hero, Jack Scarlet, whom we met in Chapter 2. Let’s tune in…
Jack Scarlet: Deepfire
3: Unofficial Channels
“Jack, I can’t tell you how much we appreciate you coming on such short notice,” said Jeff Settles.
“Of course,” said Jack, as he shook hands with the older man. “I wish I’d been here sooner.”
Jeff and Marian Settles were a successful African-American couple from Pacific City, smartly dressed and wilting a bit in the unaccustomed Louisiana heat. Jeff was in his fifties, bald on top, with a neatly trimmed beard gone mostly grey. He wore understated titanium frame glasses. Though he had put on a few pounds since his grad school days at Stanford, Settles kept himself in good shape. Jack recalled that Jeff was an avid fisherman and SCUBA diver when he wasn’t closing deals for his venture capital fund.
Jack took Marian’s extended hand. Dr. Marian Settles was a few years younger than her husband, a bit lighter-skinned, almost his height, and far more graceful. Every movement she made was precise, economical. Marian was a champion swimmer in college, Jack knew, and only narrowly missed making the U.S. Olympic Team. Now she was a top microbiologist at Pacific State University. Jack saw at once where Cassi got her looks, and her drive. He also saw that right now every erg of Marian’s intensity and focus was directed at solving one problem – finding her daughter.
Jack wondered briefly whether it was Jeff or Marian who thought of calling him. Not that it mattered. It was evident both were exhausted and sick with worry. The couple had a haunted look that all their poise and polish couldn’t hide. Jack doubted either had slept much since arriving from the West Coast two days ago. He understood. Cassi was their only child. They were grasping at any straw to bring her back.
The Settles had decamped to a Roman Inn chain hotel that was surely a few stars below what they were used to. But it was near the Coast Guard Command Center. Jack met them in the hotel’s patio restaurant overlooking the churning brown Mississippi River.
“What is the latest?” asked Jack, as he seated himself in a wicker chair at their table.
Jeff hung his head. “The Coast Guard hasn’t much to tell us. They have boats in the water and planes in the air. The search is ongoing. That’s all they’re saying.”
Jack mimed holding a phone. “I spoke with Admiral Reese during my flight down. As you know, Sandpiper’s last known position was in international waters, closer to Yucatán than to here. Coast Guard has deployed assets out of Houston and Tampa. They’re coordinating with the Navy and with Mexican authorities. I’m certain they are throwing everything they have at this.”
“But finding nothing,” said Jeff. His voice was almost a growl.
“Not yet,” said Jack. “Listen, I told Admiral Reese that any asset Scarlet Technologies has is at his disposal. Boats, planes, sonar, satellites, whatever we have.”
“I wasn’t able to reach your father …” said Jeff.
Jack grinned. “Dad is overseeing field trials of experimental mining equipment in Mongolia. He’s a little hard to reach right now. I made the same calls he would make.”
“Thank you,” said Jeff. His features relaxed for a moment. “I know the Coast Guard and the Navy are doing what they can, but …” Settles trailed off, shaking his head. He clenched and unclenched his big hands.
“They’re hiding something!” said Marian, with a vehemence that startled Jack. She leaned toward him with fire in her eyes and thrust one arm in the general direction of Gulf of Mexico. “My baby is lost out there and they are not telling us all they know.”
Jack nodded gravely. “I understand your frustration, Dr. Settles.”
Marian pursed her lips and shook her head defiantly, sending her long braids swinging. “You do not know, Jack. Unless you are a mother you do not know.”
“Understood,” said Jack. “My point is this: I know you want Cassi back, safe and sound. I will do all in my power to make that happen. That’s a promise, Dr. Settles. To both of you.”
Jeff and Marian locked hands and exchanged a hopeful look.
“Thank you,” said Marian.
“Thank me when I get back,” said Jack.
“You’re going out there?” said Jeff.
Jack nodded. “I have a boat here in Crescent. I want to see the search area myself.”
“I’m going with you,” said Jeff.
“It’s better if you don’t. You’ll want to be here, at the command center. Everything the searchers find will be reported in. This is the place for you.” Jack pursed his lips in thought. He met Marian’s penetrating gaze. “I believe you are correct, Dr. Settles. There may be something the Coast Guard is holding back from you.”
Marian’s eyes narrowed. Jeff took on a pained expression. “What? What would they not be telling us?” he demanded.
“Sandpiper disappeared near San Marcos,” said Jack.
“San Marcos?” said Jeff. He frowned. “That’s a little island country.”
“It is,” said Jack.
Jeff shrugged. “I don’t know much about it, but—”
Jack nodded. “Unless you’re a geography buff, there is no reason you would. San Marcos is one of those accidents of history that slips through the cracks of world attention and makes a virtue of obscurity. It’s not even a member of the UN. But San Marcos is a sovereign state and one fairly adamant about preventing intrusions. So far they have refused permission for outside search craft to enter their waters or airspace.”
“They aren’t cooperating in the search?” said Jeff. His voice rose. “That is outrageous!”
Jack made a placating gesture. “Most ships plying the Gulf steer clear of San Marcos, with good reason. If Sandpiper was disabled and somehow lost power and communications, it may have drifted into their territorial waters.”
“You’re saying Cassi could be there,” said Marian. She straightened to her full height, struck by a disturbing thought. “You’re saying they may have arrested her?”
Jack looked her straight in the eye. “That would be a best case scenario,” he said softly.
Marian’s mouth opened in shock as she grasped the implication of Jack’s words.
Jeff shook his head vigorously. “No, no, no, Jack. No, they would have told us if there was anything to do with this
San Marcos.” He banged his hand on the table. “If those people are … are holding my Cassi prisoner, then, by God, I will —”
Jack held up his hands. “I don’t mean to upset you. I am only speculating. I’m reading between the lines of what Admiral Reese told me. What he was saying without saying, if you know what I mean.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” said Jeff. He gripped the edge of the table hard and leaned toward Jack. “I don’t know what you mean at all.”
Jack took a deep breath. “If – I emphasize if – if Sandpiper was taken and the crew detained, we go from search and rescue to delicate diplomatic situation. So far, the San Marcans haven’t said they have the Sandpiper crew in custody. Nor have they denied it.”
Jeff exploded. “Then the State Department needs to –”
Jack raised a hand to interrupt. “State won’t be much help. San Marcos does not have good relations with the United States. Officially, San Marcos is off limits to the search, and that isn’t likely to change.”
“Even though Cassi’s ship may gone there,” said Marian.
Jack spoke slowly. “Without permission from the San Marcans, there can be no official search of those waters.”
“I won’t stand for this!” said Jeff. “I’ll call Senator Fairmont. I’ll get the President on the line if I have to. I gave enough to his campaign.”
“No official search,” said Jack.
Marian’s eyes narrowed. “You’re not official. Are you, Jack Scarlet?”
Jack grinned. “No, Dr. Settles. I am not.”
Jack’s 150-foot yacht, Lady Marisa, shot south across the Gulf of Mexico at just over 100 knots, powered by four Aegir waterjet thrusters – two on the outriggers and two on the larger central hull of the trimaran – driven by four Spectrum laser-gain engines factory-rated at 6000 hp each and overclocked by Jack’s mods to something beyond that. For a vessel of her size, Lady Marisa was insanely fast.
Jack and Galahad were the only people aboard. Lady Marisa was licensed to operate with a crew of one. Often that was Jack, who was rated a master mariner, or Commander Tara Lane, the Royal Canadian Navy vet who managed Jack’s private fleet of research ships, experimental vessels, and pleasure craft. But in their absence, MARISA could legally pilot the boat. The Marine Reticular Integrated System Avatar was a fork of Jack’s RISA artificial intelligence engine, optimized to operate a ship.
Right now MARISA had the helm while Jack and Galahad prepped in the main salon below deck.
Galahad eased his white leather recliner all the way back and groaned. His complexion was a notable shade lighter than usual.
Jack glanced up from the bathymetric chart he was studying on the ten-foot holographic tabletop. “Sea-Band not helping?”
Galahad raised his right arm limply. The acupressure wristband he wore was supposed to prevent sea sickness. Sometimes it worked for him. Today was an exception. Gal extended his middle finger. Jack laughed.
“Jumped a canyon, jetted to Crescent, and now your devil boat all in the same day,” said Galahad. “All too much for the medicine of the bracelet to overcome.”
“I have dramamine if you want it.”
Galahad wrinkled his nose. “White man’s poison.”
“Sure, tough guy.” Jack pinched his fingers to zoom in on a particular undersea feature that interested him. “Ginger tea?”
“Excuse me.” Galahad leaned over and made use of the sick bag. When the convulsions subsided he sat up and said.
“Tea would be lovely.”
“Should be here any second,” said Jack.
On cue, a Rolling Butler powered serving cart entered from the galley area and wheeled to Galahad. A compartment in its cylindrical body opened, revealing a steaming mug of reddish-brown liquid with a strong aroma of ginger root.
“You made tea already,” said Galahad. He raised the recliner halfway and took the cup, which he sniffed suspiciously. “Am I that predictable?”
“YES,” said the feminine, yet distinctly synthesized voice of MARISA, emanating from speakers in the ceiling.
“Thank you, dear computer lady,” said Galahad. He raised the tea cup in salute.
“YOU’RE QUITE WELCOME, MR. TWOHAWKS.” MARISA spoke something close to the received pronunciation of British English.
Galahad sipped his tea. “At least your computer cares that I’m puking my guts up,” he said.
Jack rolled his eyes. “I programmed her.”
“TRUE,” said MARISA.
“Let’s not get all existential,” said Galahad. He took another long draught of tea. “Yeah, this is going to work.”
“So remind me why you dragged me here from Idaho. I was looking forward to my vacation in Crazyland.”
Other Native American tribes had reservations. The Monoga Nation had the Chief River Autonomous Zone – the CRAZ, Crazyland – where Galahad was born.
“No, you weren’t,” said Jack. “You’d have been bored out of your skull by week’s end.”
Galahad’s lip curled. “That’s why I invited you, kemo sabe. To entertain me. This is not what I had in mind.”
Jack gave a slow, distracted nod. “Jeff Settles is a friend of Dad’s. He started his career at ScarletTech before launching his own company. Sold that for a few hundred million, then founded Halica Ventures with his partners. They’ve done well.”
“Friend of the family,” said Galahad.
“And the daughter? GFE?”
Girlfriend emeritus. Of which Jack had too many.
“Ph.D.,” said Jack. “Marine biology. For the past two years Cassi has led plastic pollution survey expeditions partially funded by WES.”
Jack was on the board of the World Ecological Society, founded in 1912 by his great-grandfather to advance natural conservation.
“Got it,” said Galahad. “You think the San Marcos crowd grabbed her ship?”
Jack shrugged. “Sandpiper vanished suddenly. No distress call. Transponder went dark. As did radar and radio signatures. That says catastrophic event.”
“Wouldn’t be a first for the friendly San Marcos Coast Guard,” said Jack. “They’re known to sink vessels suspected of drug running. But there are other possibilities.”
“Sandpiper was censusing Gulf fish populations. For two weeks prior they reported unusually low fish counts.”
Galahad shrugged. “Fish come and go, man. They’re fish.”
“The undercount was significant enough that Cassi conferenced with colleagues onshore almost daily, trying to make sense of it. And it wasn’t only Sandpiper. The abrupt marine population decline was noted throughout the Gulf.”
Galahad frowned. “You’ve lost me. What do missing fish have to do with a missing ship?”
“Maybe nothing. But one of the last transmissions from Sandpiper was Cassi’s voicemail for a colleague onshore. MARISA?”
“HERE YOU ARE, JACK,” said the AI. There was an electronic tone over the speakers, then the recorded voice of Cassidy Settles filled the room: “Orin! It’s Cassi! We’ve found the fish. All of them, I think! It’s … well, I’ve never seen anything like it. Call me right away! As soon as you get this! We’ll have video uploaded in a few minutes.”
“You have the video?” asked Galahad.
Jack pursed his lips. “Never uploaded. Sandpiper posted regular mission update videos on their ViewTube channel. The last was posted the day before the ship went missing.”
“Fish disappeared. Fish came back. Maybe the ship went wherever the fish did,” said Galahad.
“Which is where we’re going,” said Jack. “San Marcos.”
“So you plan to slip into San Marcos waters and poke around without them catching on? Or catching us?”
“Plan to?” Jack laughed. “You know me better than that, Gal. We entered San Marcos waters fifteen minutes ago.”
Trouble brewing? Of course! Read Jack Scarlet: Deepfire, coming this spring, for the rest.
I’m not sure I’ll post any more excerpts — having to hand code all of MARISA‘s dialogue for small caps to get it to show right in WordPress is a pain. And I really should be finishing the book anyway!
By the way, you can pre-order Jack Scarlet: Deepfire on iBooks or Barnes & Noble (and Kobo soon, I hope). I’m not really pushing pre-orders, but if you’re so inclined I appreciate the vote of support – and it does have a positive motivational effect on Your Humble Writer’s focus to get the book done in a timely way to know that Loyal Readers are waiting!