Moray in the Wreck

by John Possidente
The grubby research vessel was no different from the average diesel-foul salvage
boat, the Moray thought, except for that laser cannon bolted, welded, and lashed
to the bow. Fast work, he grimaced, and sloppy. Then there was the security
escort--a brand new, scrubbed, white cutter modified to act as an icebreaker.

"They should'a put me on that one," he muttered to himself. He spat the remains of
his cigar over the low rail, "The joe's prob'ly better." He hunched up in the bulky
orange coat they'd given him and started aft.

Of course, it wasn't an ordinary salvage boat, or he wouldn't be on it. Giuseppe
"the Moray" Morelli knew he was no ordinary diver. He'd capped fires at undersea
gas rigs that burned so hot that the sea was literally boiling all around him; he was
one of maybe a dozen men who'd seen deep thermal vents with his own eyes; he
was the only known survivor of the Excalibur disaster. X-COM only hires the best,
he thought, even the pathetic remnant that was left of X-COM after more than a
year of the paper-pushers' cutbacks. The Moray was part of X-COM's only active
field team--the Sub-Oceanic Reconnaissance and Extraterrestrial Salvage
Operation. The paint on both sides of the bow said "S.O.R.E.S.O.", but everyone
on board called it "SORES", and the dive crew referred to themselves as "the
Sores".

That was fine by Morelli. He kicked away the snow that had piled up by the hatch
and made his way below to find a mug and something hot to put in it. First dive
wasn't until after dark, so he had plenty of time to waste. The Sores were starting
their operations at ACS-9, just north of the Bering Strait.

During the war, more than one of the alien craft X-COM interceptor pilots had
shot down had landed in water. At the time, there had been neither a good reason
nor the resources to recon these wrecks. Those that the various navies had been
able to locate were monitored on sonar, but none had ever showed any sign of
activity. Everyone just hoped that meant that the aliens couldn't swim. The Sores'
charter was to find, scout, explore, and salvage these underwater wrecks. Today,
they were on their way to their first actual mission, the ninth sunken alien craft that
had been located and charted--ACS-9.

ACS--it meant "aquatic crash site", but the Moray always thought of it as "alien
crystal salvage". He had been told over and over, by nervous scientist-types, that
the alien crystals of element 115, elerium, were the most important thing to look
for. The way he had the scuttlebutt, the military researchers had banned anyone but
themselves from experimenting with the stuff, hoarded the entire world's supply,
and then managed to use it all up without learning squat--or at least nothing more
than the original X-COM scientists had found. Too bad for them if he didn't find
any, but the Moray wouldn't lose any sleep over it.

ACS-9 was only a half day trip out from the tiny, secluded Alaskan research port,
but they'd started late in the morning on purpose. The first recon dive had been
scheduled to be made after dark, on the theory that most of what they were
looking for--and all of what might be looking for them--glowed. Morelli knew how
weak the logic was--at three hundred feet, it's always dark--but nobody had asked
him, so he was keeping quiet. He followed the trail of steam along the stained
ceiling to the galley, grabbed a heavy, brown bakelite mug full of oily, black coffee,
and headed back to the rail. He wasn't a very social guy sober, so that's where he
spent most of his time.

Through the grimy glass forewall of the cramped bridge, all that was visible was a
tiny red light, bobbing on the waves. Directly under that light, whipping and
snapping in the dark wind, was the standard flag--divers down. Beneath the float
that held the flag, down the short rope that depended from the float, was the tiny
box that held the radio transponder. A minuscule, piercing white light flashed from it
every few seconds. Several hundred feet below the transponder box, a weighted
marker sat in darkness on the silty sea floor. A red bulb on the top of it pulsed
brightly and dimmed, over and over, in counterpoint to the transponder's white
flashes. Four hundred yards south- southeast of the marker, along the lee side of a
humped ridge, a pair of yellow, two-man mini-subs sat abandoned on the silty sea
floor.

On the other side of the ridge was the crater. As the Moray kicked along slowly,
twenty feet above the circular depression, he tried to see into the tiny pit in the
center and keep up his constant scan of the area. Night dives were no different
from day at this depth, he thought; whoever planned this outing's never been down.
Dark is dark. He felt something menacing about this darkness, though; there might
be something other than the usual threats down here.

"Circular crater," one of his three companions fired up his throat mike. It had to be
Bessel, the military specialist. More like security babysitter, Morelli knew.
"Undoubtedly an explosion, not an impact. A crash crater would be lopsided and
have a smaller central pit. See the ejecta off to our right?"

A deep female voice broke the momentary silence, "Think the ship blew?" That
was Nonna--Margaret Donio to anybody but the Moray. She wasn't just the oldest
diver in the squad; she was probably the only 64 year-old woman on the planet
licensed for unlimited depth. Watching her swim and work was a pure joy for
Morelli, and a learning experience. She was efficient and graceful. Like most
people her age, she had long ago stopped making unnecessary motions. More than
once, her example had helped the Moray pinpoint the flaws in his technique.

"Negative," Bessel replied. "Our records of the combat show an object detaching
from the alien craft before impact. If the whole ship had gone up, this hole would
be six times this size."

"X-COM records, you mean," the radio noise didn't cover the bitterness and
suspicion in that voice. Rafael's going to get himself in bad trouble one of these
days, Morelli thought. Researchers all over the world had been incensed when the
military had stepped in and confiscated all of the data X-COM had collected. To
Rafael Gallagher, whose ScD in Xenological studies was practically useless without
access to X-COM's files, Bessel represented the military. He was as good a target
as any for the scientist's righteous ire.

Bessel seemed to shrug it off. "Shift west fifteen degrees," he commanded, "looks
like we've found the prize." The four turned as one toward the western lip of the
crater. Morelli lifted his laser spot with both hands and flicked&127 the thumb switch.
The coherent beam made a ruler-straight orange line to the edge of the crater,
though it quickly became fuzzy past that. He used it to scan the area beyond the
ridge until he found it--an unnaturally regular lump in the silt.

"Two hundred meters," he droned into his mike. "Gauge check." He watched to
see that they all glanced down, then checked his own pressure. Butch, his long time
partner, had always told him, "Don't ever get sloppy. Good habits will save your
life. Not might save--will save." All four divers kicked toward the edge. As they
passed over the center, Morelli tried again to peer into the pit. He couldn't see
anything except jumbled black glass--silt and sand fused by the heat of whatever
had exploded here."

"What do you suppose got loose and blew?" he asked aloud. He didn't really
expect an answer, but Rafael replied immediately.

"Could be any number of things," he said. Morelli heard Bessel grunt in annoyance.
"Any of their weapons could've made a crater like that," Rafael continued. "Or a
stray power supply."

"The size of the blast and the amount of heat," Bessel said authoritatively, "suggest
that the crater is the result of the craft's main power unit detonating. It's unlikely that
it came loose by accident. I'd guess the aliens jettisoned it before they hit."

"They were trying to survive the crash," Nonna cut in. She didn't have to say any
more, and she didn't. Morelli turned it over in his mind as he cleared the ridge. If
they thought they could survive the wreck, then they must not have been worried
about the water. That would mean there's a good chance they're still active. On the
other hand, the sonar scans haven't picked up any movement since the wreck was
found. Maybe the aliens got out before that. Then again, he thought, maybe they
didn't recognize the problem. After all, there's no water on Mars.

His breathing was the only sound. Less than a hundred meters remained between
them and the wreck. As he got closer, the Moray let himself drift down near the
sea floor. He couldn't see the alien ship as well from there, but that worked both
ways. Looking around, he noticed that Bessel and Nonna were doing the same.
Only Rafael stayed high.

"Some of the propulsion outlets are visible," he reported down. "The ship must
have settled on its side. That fits with the power source being ejected. All the
weight that was left then would be on one side, with the navigation equipment."
Morelli could just see the outlets; they looked to him like triple eye sockets. How
many eyes did an alien have, anyway? "It's facing away from us," Rafael continued,
clearly excited. "It looks like there's a hole in the bottom, near the center."

"Tell us how large the hole is," Nonna interrupted, "and whether the edges are
rough or smooth." Smart, Morelli thought. That's our way in. He wondered if the
aliens had ever learned to intercept human radio transmissions.

"Spread out," Bessel seemed to have been thinking along the same lines. "Rafael,
get down here. Now." The scientist kept right on ahead, unheeding. "Gallagher, you
are a target. Do you understand?" Bessel's tone was clipped; Rafael had just hit the
top of his short list. "We have not established that we are alone here." That got to
him, and the scientist hesitated. Taking advantage of the opportunity, Morelli shot
up from the bottom like his namesake and grabbed Rafael by the ankle. Pulling
their masks close, he silently mouthed a few choice words. Rafael went pale, and
the Moray pulled him to the sea floor.

"Thanks, Moray," Bessel sounded relieved.

By the time Rafael started swimming again, Nonna had carefully circled the alien
craft. "I'm directly opposite Morelli," she reported, all business. "No movement yet.
Call me twelve o'clock and check in." Good, Morelli thought, the aliens probably
don't know anything about pre-digital clocks. Unless, of course, their mind probes
did more than just control a person.

"Ack," Bessel acknowledged, "standing at eight thirty. Behind some high rocks."

"Check," Rafael still sounded a bit shaken, "four&127 fifteen, moving counter-clock."

"Ack," the Moray added, "six o'clock."

"All set, then," Nonna finished. Not for the first time, Morelli wondered at her
ability to take charge without question. Even Bessel's type never argued her
command. That's respect, he chuckled to himself, due a competent person.

"Moray, you will approach," she continued. That was a surprise. He'd thought one
of the other men would demand to be first--for science or for conquest. "Bessel
and Raf, float where you are. Bessel, feet up" That, too was smart, and Morelli
could almost hear Major Bessel cursing himself for a fool. Even if he didn't care
that he might be standing on and damaging some living creature, he should know
better than to touch bottom in an area that could have been mined long before they
arrived. "Cover the Moray's approach. Morelli, move"

He moved.

Every inch of the way, the Moray felt fatally exposed. He almost wished he could
be his namesake, the eel. There was no sense swimming fast; either he would get
fried or he wouldn't. Bessel and Rafael could only watch and try to spot the source
of the shot that killed him. He breathed and he kicked. Seawater sluiced by like
heavy air. Slowly, the alien ship grew--out there on the other side of his mask. It
was one of the smaller, single-level ships, the cruciform kind they called a "large
scout". It stuck up out of the dark silt at least ten meters. In his puny light, it
resembled nothing more than a giant, X-shaped tombstone. He tried to recall the
floor plan, but couldn't.

Well, there's no reason to be so quiet, the Moray decided. "Bessel," his voice
sounded too loud, "it looks like a large scout."

"Ack," the major's throat sounded dry. Speaking broke the tension Morelli didn't
know he'd been feeling, and he swam faster toward the alien ship. There had to be
a door, but his goal was the round hole in the center of the craft's "floor".

"Ack," Bessel paused for a moment. "What you've got is a basic X or cross shape.
There's a door at one end. Lemmes ee," he paused again. The Moray was almost
close enough now to touch the edge of the round hole. He stopped himself, and
sediment swirled off of the hull.

"I'm there," he announced. "It's a round hole, smooth, clearly intentional. Looks like
whatever was in the middle of this baby was designed to be ejectable. Hole's big
enough to get in through, and the sides don't look sharp."

"Stay put," Nonna snapped. "Bessel, shotgun. Raf, go in. Now" That meant that
Rafael would be there in a minute or two, and Bessel would have his harpoon gun
out. Morelli shone his light on the inside of the hole; it was dark in there.

"If the navigation is what weighed down the grounded end, that door should be on
the top right now," Bessel said.

"Copy that," Nonna shot back. "Raf, head for the top. Do not touch the craft; float
above it. Acknowledge."

"Ack," the scientist said, sounding cowed. Morelli smiled--he had gotten a little
sense through to him.

"The power source is in a square room in the center, approximately five meters on
a side," the major continued. "Moray, you're looking up through the floor of that
room. Opposite the main door is the exit from the central room-- down. That leads
into the navigation area. Gallagher, the door you'll be stationed near leads into the
main chamber. It's shaped like a letter 'Y', with doors at both arms. If your feet are
toward the original floor--toward the crater, that is--the door on your right leads
into the navigation area. The other door might be a problem."

"Why's that, major?" the Moray did not like what he was hearing.

"That door leads into a small room. Actually, if you end up in the navigation area
with your feet toward the floor, going left around a short hall will lead you to the
other door to the same room." Bessel stopped for a breath.

"Gauge check," Morelli announced. They all took a moment to check their air
supplies; it was almost time to switch tanks.

"During S and R missions," Bessel started up again, "uh, search and retrieve, that is,
they had problems with that place. The aliens loved to hide in there. It's pretty
defensible; there aren't any really good ways to approach. X- COM lost a lost of
operatives cleaning out that cubbyhole."

"That makes me feel better," Rafael chipped in. "I've reached the door. It's closed."
It sounded like he was getting his spirit back. Getting close to the finish line will do
that, the Moray thought. Speaking of the finish line...

"Bessel," he said, "what are the chances there's any elerium inside?"

"Slim to none," Bessel replied. "As far as we know, all of the elerium in the scout is
contained in the power source."

"Ack. Tough break for the research boys." No big bonuses for me, either, he said
to himself. Well, there's still the alloys in the hull and the navigation equipment. If
they're still in there, he reminded himself.

"Moray, get in," Nonna said. "I'm coming in next. Bessel, you, too. Both at once.
We seem to be alone, but don't get careless." She was right. The calm up 'till now
could merely be a trap. Well, orders are orders. He exhaled and kicked in, ready
for anything.

What he found was more than a little grotesque. "Nonna, we got corpses in here.
Lots of 'em." They were floating every which way in the eddies the Moray's
movement had caused--lumpy grey things like smashed, bug-eyed children. He
described them.

"Sounds like sectoids to me," Bessel replied. "Gallagher, you agree?"

"Yah," was all Rafael said.

"Whatever. Looks like they got pretty beat up in the crash. Water's not discolored,
though," he kept up a running report as he scanned the room. "Any blood must've
washed out months ago." He began trying to count the bodies, but the ballet they
were doing made it difficult. "Hey, Raf. Fair warning, they're comin' out" Morelli
grabbed the closest mangled corpse and shoved it out through the hole.

"Yow" the scientist sounded excited. Probably the first time he's been this close to
his subject matter, the Moray thought. He continued pushing the broken aliens
outside. Every one was twisted beyond any chance of survival.

"You know," he said when all five of the bodies were gone, "none of them looked
like they'd been chewed on." Slowly, he turned, orienting himself with the hole at
his feet and the door in front of him. This is what it must've been like, he thought,
going into one of these babies. "What I mean is, not even nibbles. Hell, most of the
little fish'll take a bite outa anything."

"Incompatible biochemistry," Rafael said. "To fish, they probably even smell bad.
The stench of their blood alone would've been enough to keep sea creatures at a
distance. Can I go in now?"

"Check," Nonna said. The Moray caught a glimpse of somebody's face through the
hole at his feet. The red lining on the mask said it was Bessel. It must be time by
now, Morelli decided.

"Gauge check" he smiled, looking at his pressure. It was time to change over to
the second tank, and he had guessed it right on the money. He twisted a couple of
valves, and it was done. The bubbles trailed around the sides of his head and up
behind him. Now, how hard is it going to be to open this damned door? He
frowned and slipped the pry bar off of his belt. Morelli secured the safety strap to
his wrist without thinking about it and looked from side to side for support. He
guessed that Raf was having a similar problem out on the smooth hull.

"Woah. Ow" Raf yelled. The Moray heard a clanging, then a scraping noise down
the side of the ship. "Uh-oh."

"Hey" that was Bessel. "You lose something, professor?"

Guess I'm going in first, Morelli decided. He let his hand light float out to the end of
its tether, managed to get a momentary grip on the ceiling with one hand, and the
pry bar went into the door crack a good half inch.

"Basta," he said to himself. Then to everyone, "I've got a wedge in. I'm opening the
inside door." He began to kick and put pressure on the bar.

"Bessel," Nonna was ordering people around again, "get in there and cover Moray.
Rafael, here. Use my bar. You're retrieving yours later." Morelli felt the wash from
the major's entrance just before the door gave way. Bessel got his light up just in
time. With a sound like a harpoon passing by your head, the narrow door panel slid
immediately into a recess in the wall. The other side was a cloud of dark green
ichor, which started slowly drifting up and out across the Moray's faceplate.

"Ugh," he said. The rectangular opening reminded him too much of an open grave.
"I think we can rule out survivors." He could barely see a few dark forms floating in
the murk. They didn't look self-propelled.

"Not necessarily," Bessel replied. "According to the records, the crew complement
on these suckers ran from six to thirteen. There could be up to eight more threats to
account for, or even more." He swam in front of the Moray to peer through the
hatch. The tendrils of green were dissipating into a ghostly mist. "I've got a question
for you, Moray."

"Yah." The major already knew the answer; Morelli was sure of that.

"How did the water get in there?" Bessel sounded smug.

"What are you talking about?" Morelli was willing to bite. "We're under three
hundred feet of ocean. There's water in everything down here."

"Yeah, but this is a spacecraft. It's supposed to be airtight." Now, the Moray knew
what he was getting at.

"You think somebody survived to open the door and let in the ocean," he said.

"Optimist," Morelli muttered as he retrieved his own light. He pushed past the
major and jetted into the navigation area. Something inside him said that there
weren't any live aliens here, and that something had never been wrong before. He
switched on his chest and forehead lights for a better look around.

"Morelli, you know you're making an easy target of yourself," Bessel reminded him.

"Yah," the Moray replied offhand. "I know." Where the navigation was supposed
to be were two gummy piles of silvery goo. "Gonna get a plasma bolt in the gut,
right?" Experiments had proven beyond a doubt that nothing short of a change in
the laws of physics would get a plasma weapon to work underwater. Morelli
remembered that much of the briefings. Bessel knew it, too.

"What about advanced lasers, or some weapon we know nothing about?" Bessel
was really reaching now.

"Navigation's a mess," Morelli reported. "Looks like the alloys they used dissolve
partially in seawater." Just then, he heard another door slide open. He tensed for an
attack.

"We're in," Raf called out. "Oh, yuck" Morelli relaxed. Only one more room to
check, then they could knock off the soldiering and get down to work. He grabbed
the nearest floating sectoid corpse.

"Hey, Bessel," he said. The major swam in warily. "Check this, we got one that's
armed." He gingerly pried the alien's long, thin fingers away from the stock of the
plasma rifle. "Don't these things usually have some elerium in 'em?" He turned the
weapon around and playfully peered into the barrel.

"Hell, Moray, don't do that," Bessel didn't get the joke. He jerked the rifle away
and smoothly broke it down in a matter of seconds--underwater. Morelli hadn't
known he was that expert in alien weapons. What else might he have kept quiet
about?

"You're welcome," he said sarcastically. Bessel ignored him. Ignoring the Moray is
not smart, Morelli thought grimly. When the major opened a tiny chamber in the
heart of the device, he swore. Turning the gun over, he dumped a dull yellow lump
the size of a grape into his hand. It crumbled on contact into fine, silty particles.

"This used to be elerium," was all he said. He collected as much as he could into a
plastic container, which he inserted deep into his dive bag, then pushed the rifle
away and swam toward the door to the main section. "Raf, Donio, I'm coming
through." He didn't need to waste much time with the pry bar; it was easy to brace
himself against the wall in the cramped end of the hallway. Morelli heard the others'
sounds of surprise, and figured he'd guessed right again. Bessel's mission had been
to discover the fate of the elerium supply and recover it if possible. That done, he
was headed outside to wait for them. There was nothing for him in here, anymore.

The Moray headed for the door to the deadly little room, the last room left to
explore in this wreck. "Four more dead sectoids in the main area," Rafael radioed.
"You know, what happened to the navigation won't stop there. This whole ship is
made up of the same alloys. It's just thicker and tougher than the navigation boxes.
Sooner or later, this whole craft is going to dissolve." Like a gingerbread house, the
Moray thought.

"I think it's already started," Nonna jumped in. "This craft's been down here for
over a year. I think that solves the mystery of how the sea got in here."

"I'm at the last door," Morelli announced, relaxed. He wedged himself into the
narrow hall, then paused to look over his shoulder and count. "There's four corpses
in navigation, too." That accounted for the maximum crew count ever experienced
during the war. No more bad guys, he decided. He applied the pry bar. It was time
to get this over with and go back to the ship for some more coffee. He pried, and
the door slid open easily. "I'm going through."

The room was empty, as he'd felt it would be.


                                        END