“Breakwater” by Simon Bestwick is a science fiction novelette about an engineer—who with her late, marine biologist husband designed an underwater research platform—caught up in the war between humans and mysterious creatures beneath the seas that are destroying coastal cities around the world.
I. HMS Dunwich
The wreck-buoy bells rang in the mist, among the low-tide ruins. Hunched against the cold, Cally steered the dinghy between shoal and brickwork and the hulks of rusting cars.
Dull, fitful lights gleamed in the fog. Their maintenance was a low priority, as most of the pumphouse and lightship crews were airlifted on and off, but Cally had never liked helicopters; give her a small boat any day. You always were awkward, Ben would have said.
The surviving parts of the city loomed like a black ridge of shadow to Cally’s right. The cliffs of the Suffolk coast were essentially banks of compacted gravel and sand. Even the gentlest tides wore them steadily away, and when storms raged or flood waters rose, another piece of land fell into the hungry waves.
There wasn’t as much recent wreckage farther out, and the water—even at low tide—was deeper. Cally sailed over houses, streets, and churches. A foghorn sounded in the mist.
A bigger, more powerful glow shone through the fog; Cally steered towards it, opening the dinghy’s throttle.
The ship emerged from the mist. Originally it had been painted red, but was now streaked green and orange by weed and rust. It rocked gently in the swell, tugging at its anchor chains. Above the peeling characters LVR36 on its side (light vessel relays were rarely graced with a proper name) a crewman waved from the deck.
On the ship’s seaward side, a wooden pontoon, secured to the hull by ropes and chains and kept afloat by a score of buoys, served as a crude but effective staithe. Cally moored the dinghy and climbed out. The boards were spongy and damp.
The docking station stuck out of the water by the pontoon, its side covered with barnacles, limpets, hanging rags of mussels and weeds. Around its top, at right angles to one another, were four circular hatches, one of which directly overlooked the staithe. Cally pulled on her thick gloves before climbing the ladder bolted to the side; the rungs were jagged with rust. At the top she spun the wheel in the centre of the recessed hatch and pushed it open.
On the other side of the airlock, a second ladder led down to the bottom of the forty-foot cylinder. The dull sun glimmered through the toughened glass panels in the hatches. Waves slapped against the module’s hull as Cally climbed down, so that it hummed like a struck bell.
Another airlock led into another metal cylinder, laid flat rather than on end. Rows of toughened glass portholes ran along the sides. Outside, fish wove in glittering swarms through the ruins of homes, cars half-buried in silt, the hulls of boats brought to grief.
Ben would have loved swimming through this seascape, studying whatever had made its home among the ruins. But Suffolk wasn’t like the Greek islands he’d loved—no white, sugar-soft sand to make love on, naked and shiny with lotion. Try that here, you’d end up with pneumonia. She carried on down the module to the transport station.
The station was a wide, squared-off structure, in which four golf carts stood with their bare wheels slotted into mounted rails. A plaque was mounted on the wall:
Permanent Underwater Modular Platform
Cally saw herself in the polished brass: a small, lean woman in her late forties, deep red hair and a strong-boned face. Jeans, sweater, biker jacket, a grey butcher-boy cap. Out of place on Dunwich, but perfect for Breakwater.
The golf carts had no steering wheels, only half a dozen numbered buttons. Cally pushed one and leant back in the cart as it whirred along the rails, out of the station.
Cally’s ears popped as the cart travelled down the tunnel from the station, down the slope of the seabed. The view outside the windows dimmed and what submerged wreckage could be seen was sparser, more heavily overgrown.
The cart halted in another station. Cally opened the floor hatch and climbed down into the bridge.
The bridge was sixty feet across and thirty high; a broad railed walkway ran around it halfway up, where Harkness sat in her captain’s chair. The station commander glanced up, grunted, “Doctor McDonald,” and looked away.
Harkness’s dismissive greeting was a ritual now, albeit one that never failed to piss Cally off. You wouldn’t have this place without me, without Ben, she often felt like shouting. None of this would exist. But her position here, all she had left of what she and Ben had tried to build, was allowed her less because she’d created the pumphouses than because accommodating her was no trouble. (Although occasionally, even Harkness would have grudgingly admitted, she was useful.)
So, as always, Cally said nothing and plodded across the bridge, boots clanking on the steel deck-plates. She zipped up her jacket; with a dozen wall fans in operation to prevent the computer systems overheating, the bridge was always cold. There was a low hubbub of human and electronic chatter, and a faint smell of rust and sweat.
Cally sat down at her desk in the corner. The transmitter had been automatically broadcasting throughout the night while she’d been ashore, the hydrophones recording. She uploaded the MP3 files to her laptop and skimmed through them, watching the recordings’ peaks and troughs. By now she was used to the sea’s speech patterns—sonar echoing off fish shoals, the clicks and whistles of dolphin pods, the dull thuds of mines and depth charges, the remorseless rise and abrupt peak of a Chorale. Nothing new; no answer to the calls she sent, over and over, into the depths.
Maybe there never would be. Maybe no-one listened, or no-one who cared. She wished for Ben, as she did a dozen times a day even now; for a moment, she almost felt his warm hand on hers. But only almost. Never truly. And that was never enough.
“Cuppa, ma’am?” A fresh-faced naval rating proffered a steaming mug.
“Thanks.” She smiled at him and he flushed a little, looking down. He was about twenty, less than half her age. Cally wondered if she should feel flattered.
The boy glanced over at Harkness, who was deep in conversation with Sub-Lieutenant Cannonbridge, the Gunnery Officer. “Can I, um, ask you something?” He was fair-haired and pale, with a face so unstamped by experience Cally couldn’t believe he was old enough to join up.
“You can ask,” she said.
He blinked. Cally took pity on him. “Course you can, love,” she said. Love. That had slipped out before she could stop it. He turned even redder. “Ask away,” she said, “Mister…”
“B-Baker,” he stammered. “Is it true you built this place?”
“No.” Baker blinked some more. “I designed it with my husband. Of course, it was a lot smaller then.”
“You designed Dunwich?” He looked thoroughly awed. Bless him. “Wow.”
HMS Dunwich: the name stung. Cally shook her head. “It’ll always be Breakwater to me. That’s the name Ben gave it.”
“My husband.” She nodded around the bridge. “This was Breakwater—this, the module upstairs, a couple of others. They towed it out here on floats and sank it. And we showed them it could work.”
The pumphouse, originally no bigger than a couple of semi-detached homes, had expanded massively, till it now extended along several miles of the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts in both directions and almost five miles out to sea. A giant 3-D spiderweb of modules, crusted with weed and barnacles and glimmering with tiny lights, alone in the depths. Similarly, its original role as a scientific installation had been reduced to little more than a sideshow, a sop to its creator. Cally imagined it was like looking at a child that had grown up into a foul-mouthed, unruly teenager: barely recognisable as the fragile, beautiful thing she’d created, but she loved it, anyway, for what it had been.
“He was the diver.” Ben’s grin, his hair drying shaggy and salt-crusted in the wind and sun. Kisses on a Mediterranean beach, tasting of brine, beside a driftwood fire. “He got me into it, too. For fun, I mean.”
Baker raised his eyebrows. “Diving for fun? You’re brave.”
Was he flirting with her? “It wasn’t so dangerous, not back then,” Cally said. When she’d had youth, optimism, and a warm body beside her in bed at night. “Before all this. I was an engineer, and we came up with the pumphouse concept. Originally it was intended for sea exploration—even tourism. But—things changed.”
The war had begun, though they hadn’t realised it, but there’d been hope. Some scientists had continued to believe the first fatal encounters with the Bathyphylax were accidents, misunderstandings, but no-one listened to them—or, later, to those same scientists’ more accurate reports that the Bathyphylax’s actions, far from being motiveless acts of “evil,” were in fact in response to the ongoing destruction of their deep-sea habitats.
Cally sighed. “I miss it,” she said. “Diving. I’d love to be able to do that again. Maybe one day.” She nodded at her equipment. “If we ever get an answer.”
“Can’t believe you’re still trying,” said Baker.
“Yeah.” Pretty foolish, after everything that had happened since. “Something like it on most military pumphouses now. The Contact Programme. Kind of like the SETI Project, but using a narrow-beam transmitter instead of radio—generates a focused shockwave retaining a tight pattern over distance on a continuous loop…”
Baker’s eyes were glazing over. Cally trailed off; he blinked and coughed. “They ever answered?” he asked.
“No. But I keep trying. Otherwise…” Cally gestured round. “This goes on till there’s no-one left.”
She knew how forlorn the hope sounded, but that wasn’t really the point anymore. People survived by internal mechanisms no less intricate than Dunwich’s own: Cally’s processed her grief into this lonely mission of hers, trying to squeeze some hope from the rags of her former life.
Baker glanced across the bridge, where Harkness remained deep in discussion with Cannonbridge. “So what are they like?”
Cally tried not to wince. Whether she liked it or not, it had become the term of choice for the Bathyphylax. The Greek name was a mouthful, after all; besides, it roughly translated as “guardians of the deep,” which was far too glamorous a name for an enemy you were supposed to destroy. “How should I know? No-one’s ever seen one.”
Baker chewed the inside of his mouth. “I know that’s what they say…”
“Yeah, because it’s true,” said Cally. “Or if anyone has ever seen one, I’ve never heard of it.”
“But when the Russians nuked the Marianas Trench…”
“They were fishing organic remains out of the Pacific for months afterwards, yes, but between decomposition and the radiation damage there was no telling what they’d come from. Half of it was probably ordinary marine life.”
If the Russians hadn’t nuked the Trench, the Americans or the Chinese would have done it. No matter how many warnings they’d been given of the dangers, no matter the contamination they’d known would spread. How much radiation was in the ecosystem now, seeding tumours in humans round the world? One might even be ticking away in Cally herself, killing at long range in both distance and time.
“So what do we kn—” Baker began.
“Mister Baker,” Harkness snapped, “your duties don’t include idle chatter with civilians.”
Baker went the reddest he’d gone yet and slunk away with a mumbled apology.
What were they like? All anyone had was guesswork. Cally had attended enough security briefings and, thanks to Ben, grasped enough about marine biology, to be up-to-date with current thinking. Despite the nickname, there was no consensus on Bathyphylax biology: depending on who you asked, they were marine amphibians (a minority view held by one professor from Massachusetts), intelligent octopi, whales, dolphins, or hive-minds of plankton, crustaceans or fish. There was widespread disagreement on much else, too, but it was generally agreed that their technology was organic in nature, due to symbiosis or genetic engineering, and they had, of necessity, a close relationship with their environment. Was it any surprise, then, that the ongoing pollution of the ocean—with sewage, plastic refuse, radioactive waste, dead zones and red tides—had been interpreted as an act of war?
So the war with the Bathyphylax raged on, and the humans’ leaders, at least, seemed to have no solution to offer other than genocide. And with Ben gone, all Cally had left of him was Breakwater, and her lone, seemingly futile task, transmitting her forlorn appeals for peace and negotiation out into black salt water…
Three hours later, Cally looked up from her desk and called: “Commander?”
“Yes, Doctor McDonald?”
“Picking up a Choir.” Cally amplified the faint sounds the hydrophones had detected, reciting the estimated range and bearing. “Signal strength, level four.”
“Why the hell did none of you lazy bastards get that?” Harkness barked. Cally half-smiled: Dunwich had its own listeners, of course, as its whole raison d’être was defending the coast against the Choirs, but no-one had been listening to the sea—and the Bathyphylax—as long as she. “I want that signal triangulated now. I want its position, and I want to know where that wave’s going.”
Cally isolated the Choir’s sound, breaking it down for analysis on her laptop. “It’s a big one,” she said. “Three hundred component voices, minimum. At that range it’d be level six or seven if it were facing us, so it’s at right angles, at least. Which puts it in line with”—she brought up an interactive map of the East Anglian coastline on the laptop screen and marked positions—“the area between Lowestoft and Yarmouth.”
“Get that confirmed,” said Harkness. “Mister Cannonbridge, have all songun batteries stand by.”
“Picking up two more Choirs,” said Cally, “same approximate range and strength.”
Harkness snatched up a telephone. “LVR?” she said. “Dunwich Actual. Alert Coastal Command. Three, repeat three, Choirs targeting east coast. Coordinates to follow.”
“Second Choir’s targeting the Wash,” said Cally. “Number three’s lined up with Harwich Harbour.”
“Jesus,” someone said. A level six wave-strike on the Wash would devastate King’s Lynn, Boston, and Skegness; a strike on Harwich Harbour would not only destroy the port, but send massive bore-waves up the Stour and the Orwell, perhaps even as far as Ipswich. “Estimate co-ordinates as follows.”
Triangulation was the tried and true method of pinpointing a Choir’s location, but given experience, a good ear, and some idea of its size, you could estimate the Choir’s range and bearing with some accuracy. Harkness relayed Cally’s figures to the LVR. “Tell Coastal to get their planes airborne,” she said, “and stand by for confirmation.”
Lieutenant Sugulle, the First Officer, ran up and gave Harkness the final coordinates: they were a near-match to Cally’s. She nodded to herself. Maybe there was another reason Harkness kept her aboard, not that the Commander would ever admit it.
Harkness gave the LVR the final co-ordinates. “Seek and destroy,” she said. “Mister Cannonbridge, I want full songun cover for Harwich and the Wash.”
“Already done, ma’am.”
There was a weak ripple of laughter at that, then only silence: nothing else to do now but watch, and wait. For the Coastal Command aircraft to find the Choirs and for the first round of wave-strikes, which the aircraft would be far too late to prevent.
The Choirs grew louder as they accumulated kinetic energy, ready to release it as a shockwave that would displace tons of water. They were at full volume now, and the longer they “sang,” the bigger the wave would be.
“It’s gonna be a big fucker,” someone said.
“Belay that,” said Harkness. “Mister Cannonbridge, are the songuns at full power?”
“Songun batteries fully charged, reserves at maximum. Ready to divert additional power from non-essential systems if required.”
The Choirs droned on. Cally had never known one to go on this long. Then her hydrophones picked up a dull bong, like a huge clock’s chime.
“Here it comes,” said Harkness.
Another bong sounded, then another. Out to the east, the waves would be rising. They’d be little more than thick ripples in the water to begin with, a foot high at the most.
“Coastal Command have visual,” called Sugulle. “LVR relaying signals from DART buoys now. Three wave-strikes, all sixth magnitude.”
“Over to you, Mister Cannonbridge.”
A screen on one of the bulkheads depicted the feed from LVR36. Tsunami warning buoys, out at sea, picked up changes in water depth and sent the information, via satellite relay, to the LVR, which generated a composite image of the impending wave-fronts. They were surging landwards now, growing wider and thicker. When they reached the shallows at the coast, the foot-high ripples would become fifty-foot waves.
Cannonbridge watched, arms folded. He was, Cally had to admit, an artist when it came to deploying the songun batteries. The songuns weren’t, strictly speaking, sonic weapons, but a more powerful variation on the Contact Programme’s shockwave transmitters. At close range, they could crumple or even punch through light armour, but their main use was breaking up wave-strikes before they could come ashore.
Effective though they were, they were the aspect of Dunwich—as opposed to Breakwater—Cally loathed above all others. They embodied, more than anything else, how her and Ben’s creations had been weaponised. Even the lives they’d saved couldn’t change that.
Cannonbridge picked up a phone. “Batteries One through Eight, you’re A Group,” he said. “Target midpoint of wave-front bearing on Yarmouth sector. Batteries Nine through Twenty-one, you’re B Group: target midpoint of the Harwich wave. Batteries Twenty-Two through Thirty—C Group—midpoint of wave approaching the Wash. Stand by to fire on my mark. All other batteries are D Group. You’re on mop-up duty today.”
The wave-fronts expanded, thickened. Cally clutched the arms of her chair.
“A Group, fire,” said Cannonbridge. There was a dull boom as songuns discharged, and Dunwich’s hull shivered and hummed. Cally’s screen jumped and flickered; she looked up at the wall-screen and the thick, fuzzily glowing bracket of the first wave-front.
A foggy, whitish blur bloomed in the centre of the bracket, as the songun volley hit home. The bracket broke apart into two smaller, thinner brackets. As they sped on, the blur kept expanding, fading as it did.
“D Group, fire at will,” said Cannonbridge. Another shudder ran through Dunwich, and one of the smaller waves fuzzed and crumbled away as the other songun batteries, spread throughout the pumphouse’s sprawling structure, opened fire.
The songun blasts put solid fists of water through the wave-fronts, breaking them into smaller, weaker fragments. Breakwater, indeed: even the name felt tainted. However necessary Dunwich might be, it was part of the machine driving humankind and the Bathyphylax towards mutual destruction.
B and C Groups fired, smashing through the Harwich and Wash wave-fronts. Cannonbridge directed further salvos at the half-dozen dwindling brackets that had been the Yarmouth wave; they, too, blurred and dissolved before they could hit the coast.
The songuns kept firing. One by one, the wave-fronts broke apart and faded to nothing. Dunwich began to rattle and rock afresh—not to the hammered-out rhythm of the songuns, but the random surging of a sea stirred into fury by both sides’ fire and counter-fire. Heavy waves would still crash against the East Anglian coast tonight. Roads and farmland would be flooded, homes washed away, lives lost. Another chunk of the land might fall into the sea. But all that was as nothing to the havoc the wave-strikes would have wreaked had they come ashore. Cally had seen it firsthand.
“That’s the lot,” said Cannonbridge at last. He looked grey-faced, tired. The battle—if it could be called one—had lasted minutes, and yet it had felt like hours—longer, perhaps, to him.
“Sir?” Sugulle. “Coastal Command. Strikes carried out on Choir positions. They’re dropping salvage markers now.”
In the morning, when the waters had calmed, ships would search for remains. Not that there was much point. They’d never found anything yet, and even if they did, how were you supposed to tell the remains of a Toad from a piece of their technology?
“Good work, everybody,” said Harkness, and gave Cally a nod. “Doctor.”
Cally tipped her butcher-boy cap at her. Harkness turned away with a faint facial twitch—a smile or maybe indigestion, Cally couldn’t decide.
“That was amazing.” Baker stumbled over to her. The boy almost looked drunk. “You were brilliant.”
“Buy you a drink at the Mariner’s when we get ashore?”
“You know the Mariner’s Rest?”
It was a pub, not far from Cally’s static caravan—she lived on land commandeered by the Navy, so it was a popular drinking spot with the Jack (and Jane) Tars. “Oh, yes. Been there a couple of times.” In the afternoons, when the Navy boys wouldn’t be in there getting drunk.
“Well, maybe go for a drink there?” he mumbled, turning an even brighter shade of red than before. Dear God, she hadn’t imagined it; he was hitting on her. Cally, knowing how easily hurt a young man’s pride was, did her best not to laugh—but then Baker’s smile faded: he was staring past her at the laptop screen.