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submarine

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New Road skimmed the edge of the radiant playground of Fire Road, the main drag. They were close enough to see the signs flashing endlessly in every colour: The New Showboat, Caesar's, the Haven, the King, the Golden Egg. And once every block, the familiar d-mat sign-two circles overlapping, worlds coming together in geometric harmony.

The convoy crossed Black Horse Pike unchallenged. A minute later, it turned into Zion Road and approached the docklands from the west. The docklands were mainly decorative, with only the odd sailing or cruise vessel rocking undisturbed in a public marina. There was no one about, no drones or dupes in evidence.

They pulled up at the end of the marina, one vehicle after another. There was something long and dark floating low in the water, like an aquatic ATAC. Arcady flashed a spotlight twice, and a hatch opened on the top of the sub. Two people emerged, walked halfway along its length and climbed a short ladder. The two groups met on the pier. Arcady shook hands with the submariners-a man and a woman, both dressed in tight-fitting gray-but didn't make introductions.

"Cargo?" asked the woman.

"We are the cargo," he told her.

The woman nodded, unfazed even by the EITS drone hovering in their midst. I wondered at the kind of things she'd seen, the odd requests she'd fielded in the past. Odder than anything I could imagine, I assumed.

"Grab everything you need," the woman said. "We'll hide your wheels for you."

Clair shouldered her heavy pack and followed the rest to the ladder. Getting down was awkward for her. The ladder was slick with salty spray and slime. A skinny seaman-one of three who had emerged after the first two-helped her find her footing on the swaying surface of the submarine. He pointed her at the hatch, from which a faint, red light shone, and walked across the top of the sub one foot in front of the other. There was no hand rail, which made me nervous on her behalf. The water of the Atlantic Ocean was choppy.

It had taken Clair three days to cross from one side of the former USA to the other. By d-mat, the journey would have been less than a minute.

"Your pack goes first," said Arcady. He was standing over the opening in the hull, guiding people through. Lorne and Shannon were coming last, with the corpse.

Clair took off her rucksack and he lowered it down to reaching hands. Then it was her turn. The hatch led to a narrow, vertical tunnel. She went down another ladder hand over hand, the water rising up around her like the sides of a mouth. I deactivated the fans on my drone and it was carried down after her.

The submarine was cramped and one-dimensional, with a single straight passageway running its entire length. Everyone and everything was in that passageway: stowage, controls, engines, even toilets and a tiny kitchen. Packs piled into every available niche. People squeezed in where they could. Clair picked a spot and stayed there. Somehow Jesse found her and squeezed in next to her.

"Exciting, isn't it?"

She made a sound that might have been a laugh, but could equally have been a sob.

"How long until we arrive?" she asked.

"An hour and a half," he told her. "This thing is fast. It has a cavitation hull, MHD drive system and a miniature reactor so it can stay under for months. Officially we stopped developing these things after d-mat came along, but you can hide subs in ways you can't hide airships and drones. This could be a knock-off of a military design, or even a genuine decommission. It's hard to say."

"This you know about?"

"No wheels, you see. And the drive system has applications off-Earth, where I really want to go."

"You're picturing yourself in a spaceship right now, aren't you?"

"I am. What does that make me?"

"A big nerd. The biggest imaginable."

The hatch clanged shut above them, sounding an unimaginable distance away, and I was cut off at once.

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