Issue Red

„Another one?! You lost one more sub?! How the hell are you doing it?! This whole mess is just impossible, plain impossible.” Annie’s forehead is gleaming. Her white shirt stained by dark sweat marks. Despite the air conditioning. Not easy, for a leader, to accept this kind of defeat.

Tonia would be compassionate, if she had more time. But they’re running out. Of time. And of options. Especially of options: “Annie, you’re in denial. Won’t work. It’s not going away. They’re not going away. It has happened before. We lost subs. And planes. And now it has happened again. It’s perfectly possible. They can do it. They once again did it. And they will keep doing it. As long as we don’t comply with their demands, they’ll keep doing it. We have to…”

“No. No! And no means no. What the hell do you think you’re doing, Tonia? The idea, of this general role of yours, is that you beat our enemies. Beat, cow, subjugate. Which does include the option to annihilate. If necessary, as a last resort. Your role does not include telling me what to do. I perfectly well know what to do, thank you. And now you will get these pests out of my…”

One is not supposed to talk back to the commander in chief. Even if she has been your knitting buddy for decades. The ‘in chief’ bit calls for obedience. But if she does talk rubbish…

Tonia cuts in, forcing herself to adopt a conciliatory tone: “No means no, Annie, indeed. No as in ‘No, there’s nothing we can do’. We don’t even understand what happens to our subs and planes. When they identify our hardware as a threat – pretty correctly identify it as a threat, I’m tempted to add – they vanish. The subs, the torpedos, the crews, they just disappear. Same for planes and bombs. Pulverized? Transferred to outer space? Or to a different dimension? We’ve got no idea. Looks like magic. We are like Bronze Age primitives throwing spears at…”

Sweat is dripping from her forehead, and her retort comes out wetter than intended, but Annie won’t give up. You don’t survive two global campaigns by faltering fast: “No Tonia. Not again. You’re not supposed to tell me what we don’t know and can’t do. I need options, Tonia. I insist on options. Algae. We’re talking mere algae, for progress’ sake! You can’t tell me there’s nothing we can do, against algae. This is not Godzilla we’re fighting, Tonia.”

Politicians. Masters of delusion. And never short of misleading approximations: “Corals. Not algae, Annie. Corals. Probably. The scientific task force assumes Issue Red to be a coral type organism, because of their demands. They might or might no look like the corals we know, which are a pretty diverse bunch anyway. We have no idea if they have landed, in some kind of spaceship or by any other means, or do their thing remotely. It might or might not be a coincidence that Issue Red started manifesting itself when Oumuamua passed earth. That asteroid might or might not be a spaceship. There’s an awful lot the scientists don’t know, Annie. We do know, however, because they made that very unmistakably plain, that they insist on…”

Annie shakes her head, reconfiguring the rivulets of sweat: “No Tonia. You will not tell me I have to kowtow to some foul mouthed seaweed. Are you even listening to yourself? This is our planet. And no bloody moss, or alga…  It is alga, the singular, for algae, is it? Never mind. No moss, alga or coral, or whatever other fish fodder, will tell me what to do. This is my, this is our planet.”

When in doubt, stonewall. Any general worth her stars knows when to perform a tactical retreat. Full frontal won’t deliver. Time to switch to siege mode. Face barely polite neutral. No nods or confirmatory noises. Let the ramble run its course. Wait for an opportunity.

Half an hour later, the President is still at it. Insisting the corals can’t interfere.

At least she’s calling Issue Red corals now. Tonia tries to cherish this advance.

And there comes the knock the general has been waiting for. The aide enters immediately, not waiting for permission. This, and her funeral face, make clear what happened.

Which coastal city will have been hit this time?

Latin America has been spared so far, meaning it could be its turn. Issue Red seems endowed with some sense of fairness. Up to now, the attacks have been evenly distributed across continents, regardless of the presence of coral reefs in the vicinity.

It’s Rio de Janeiro that went dark. The general feels like a pervert, resenting her own joy. She guessed right, but you can’t relish a city getting nighted. Not appropriate.

Same old. Same procedure as in Rotterdam, Shanghai, Miami and Sydney.

The black balloon rising from the sea, unfolding into a giant dome shielding the city from any daylight. Few pictures sent from the inside, flashlights struggling against the deep darkness. Loads of pictures from the outside. Mostly closeups. A giant black wall blocking roads and fields. And some satellite pictures. The Brazilian coastline sporting a big fat black wart.

Are they really going to make that last five weeks?

Rotterdam got away with a mere seven days, but the next attacks lasted longer. If Issue Red keeps up the rhythm, Rio is in for five weeks. That’s gonna hurt. Nothing gets through. Not even tunneling helps. What looks like a dome is in fact a bubble.

Time for the next offensive: “Annie, that’s gonna hurt, bad. Time to give in.”

The President shakes her head in exasperation: “Give in?! Are you out of your mind? Just to keep us on the same page, my dear Tonia: They want us to subsist – if you can call that subsisting, which I strongly doubt – on the level of energy and resource consumption enjoyed – “enjoyed”, in the words of those f***ing slimey bastards – by the most frugal ten percent of the world population. You ever been to one of those refugee camps where they achieve that grandiose feat, Tonia? You really suggesting me, or anyone else, could get away with proposing this?”

Seeing her general nod, Annie feels her face explode in additional heat. Blessed be the blackness of her skin. A dark complexion is a vital asset, in conflicts. Hard to see how furious she is.

“No need to blow up, Annie. I’m aware how bad that will feel, we will feel. But dying sucks worse.”

Tonia stated this calmly. She won’t say more. First rule for a decisive strike: Make that one.

While the leader of the unified world ponders her lack of options, seaman Clarissa enjoys.

Her best day ever. She had been worried, scared even, when the officer cadet said they would approach the reef. Rumor has it that subs have been lost, in such engagements.

But it all went well. She recalls feeling the South Sudan lurching ahead at minimum speed. She was holding her breath, but nothing happened.

Next she must have banged her head. Or might have been more stressed by the occasion than she cares to admit. There’s a little fuzziness clouding her memories.

Now she’s enjoying her off duty rest. In a wonderful bed. It feels bigger and softer, and even smells better, much better, than yesternight.

Clarissa is also less exhausted than usual. And much less worried.

She just lies there and enjoys. Some of her best memories keep welling up.

How she won a diving contest, in primary school. Even though her mom had said she should not compete. For lack of grit. And for being too young. But she won.

How Madeleine proposed to her. Right after she had given up, quietly. Considered herself unworthy of such a gorgeous mate. Signed up for four more years on the sub. That same evening, Madeleine proposed. Very conventionally. Under a palm tree, over palm wine.

How the two of them won both the seafront and the pool access lottery. Crazy luck. Turned their flat into one of the most valuable properties in the compound.

And her first solo motorbike ride. The memory feels so real her body adjusts. Left. Straight up. Right. Straight up again. Vicious serpentines, on mount Merapi. Gorgeous biking.

As far as Clarissa is concerned, this precious moment of respite has permission to last.

She knows the tedium of submarine life will be back with a vengeance any minute now. Savors all those precious memories even more avidly.

Meanwhile, the master of her fate struggles with its responsibilities.

“They might be sentient, BalCarBia. An early form of precursor sentience, of course, not talking the real thing here. But look at their tools. Toxic, of course. Extremely crude, sure. But tools, unmistakably. They do shape their environment.”

The FerGamFoi segment signals emotional involvement and conviction alongside the reference data. It has serious doubts, concerning the legitimacy of their intervention.

“Nonsense, FerGamFoi. I’ve got a pet tlam, two pet tlams, actually, and they kind of use tools. When I forget to feed them, they assemble a signaling chain to remind me. Even telling me which feed they’d prefer. If you start considering whichever lifeform a sentient entity, where would you draw the line? MuiNolMar segment, it’s hardly more clever than my tlams. But it’s one of us. And tlams are pets. Same principle here. Especially for the speedies. You have to draw a line.”

BalCarBia segment feels pride. This was well signaled. Perfect socioempathy.

Nowadays, this kind of skills is valued. The old days, when you could tell waverers like FerGamFoi to shut up and move on, were easier. But BalCarBia adapted well. As always. Only the most creative and flexible segments get to lead interstellar missions.

“If it wasn’t sentient, we wouldn’t have been able to retrieve patterns. It’s enjoying itself, sure, because it doesn’t know it’s dead. But I would prefer us not to interfere. The locals have such a long way to go, until they reach sentience. Perhaps the speedies are as sentient as it gets, here.”

FerGamFoi won’t admit it, but it does like speedies. Such phantastically fast existences. Lasting a mere ten millionth of their own lifespan. Fascinating. They must have found some way to hand down knowledge, each short-lived wave building on the achievements of their forebears.

BalCarBia segment lets FerGamFoi segment’s signaling pass unrecepted. It’s to busy receiving and decoding new scans. Having checked and rechecked its findings, it goes:

“Cheer up, FerGamFoi. New orders, and you’ll like them. We’ll leave your beloved speedies alone. They are free to mess up this hot hellhole of a planet at their convenience. Wrong location. Our contacts reside further out. Biggest moon of the huge planet we passed earlier. Internal ocean. Pretty place, just like home. Time to discard your experiment, FerGamFoi, we’re off.”

FerGamFoi signals concordance. Despite its firm intention to keep what is left of the annihilated speedies. Just as a pastime. No need to inform.

Five minutes later, Annie starts gloating. It’s never too early to think re-election, The Rio bubble vanished. Algae over. She beat them off. Didn’t even need her gun.