Lost in thought, Amelia glided over the open ocean, consumed by the rhythmic beating of the helicopter’s blades. She knew what lay ahead was going to change her life forever and the sheer weight of knowing filled her heart with a greater anxiety than she’d ever felt. That feeling of dread and destiny was only amplified by the vertigo she experienced looking down over the endless blue plane that was the pacific ocean.
“Have you ever seen the space tethers?”
The question pulled her back to reality. She turned to the speaker: a balding man in a tan suit grinning a boy scout’s smile. He was from the American Commonwealth and had served as her contact for DOR since she’d accepted the invitation to join Sea Lab.
“Never in person,” she told him.
“It’s just not the same,” he told her. “Even in VR. You really have to see them with your own eyes to understand just how beautiful the tethers are.”
Beautiful seemed like a strange word to use for a piece of technology used to transport equipment into space. As if on cue, there was a crackle in the headset she wore. The pilot’s voice came through a fit of static.
“We’re approaching coordinates 17.75 north by 142 degrees east. We will have a visual of the tethers momentarily.”
With her escort watching her every move, she gazed through the acrylic portal of the helicopter doing her best to ignore the queasy feeling in her stomach instilled by seeing so much space below her. The boy scout grinned and she shifted nervously under the weight of his eyes. She remembered his name: Tim Peterson. They had shaken hands before climbing into the helicopter. Amelia took a deep breath and folded her hands on her lap.
At first, she saw only the blue shadow of the ocean against the sky, but out of the fog of clouds appeared a black tower that stretched into the heavens. It was like a string rising from the ocean, or perhaps it was piercing the water from space? From their perspective, it was impossible to tell. One by one the tethers appeared in the distance, like a forest of black poles penetrating the water.
“I’m sure a scientist like yourself knows all about the space tethers,” said Tim Peterson. “But knowing and seeing aren’t the same thing. In-person, they’re much more impressive.”
“It’s hard to imagine they stretch all the way into space,” said Amelia.
“Yes. The mind has difficulty processing that information when looking at the thing itself. My mind knows that the tether is anchored to the seafloor and that it stretches into space, suspended by the force of Earth’s rotation, but my mind goes to fantastic places when I see them.”
“They look like giant needles, like the ones my mother used to knit with. Or like some giant or god tried to poke a hole in the Earth.”
“Very imaginative description. I can see why Dr. Yamamoto chose you for this job.”
She was about to ask the man what he meant when they were interrupted by the pilot.
“We have a visual of the landing site. I’m bringing us down. Things might get a little choppy near the water, but it’s only the headwinds giving us grief.”
The helicopter lurched and Amelia threw her hand against the hull of the aircraft for support. Tim Peterson smiled, but his white knuckles--gripping the handrails on the sides of his seat--revealed his true feelings. His face was slightly bulbous from the force of the sudden descension.
When the pilot finally landed on the helipad, Tim opened the exit door, which doubled as stairs. He took her hand and helped her down. She wasn’t prepared for the strong winds once they exited the vehicle. If it hadn’t been for Tim, she would have lost her balance and slipped off the stairs. She sighed in relief when her feet were on the landing pad.
Together they crossed the steel planking and headed for a cube-shaped building at the base of the tether. Her eyes followed the enormous black line into the sky. The sense of vertigo she had felt in the helicopter was nothing compared to what she experienced tracing the tether with her eyes until it disappeared into the clouds.
They reached a steel door with a diagonal stripe painted yellow and black. Amelia took one last look west into the neverending blue, knowing that somewhere--a thousand miles away--her home and her family waited. She was doing this for them. Especially her younger sister. Thinking about Emma took away some of the fear that threatened to break her confidence.
The helicopter started just as Tim pressed the large red button set into the concrete beside the door. She held her arms against her side shielding herself from the wind as the helicopter left the pad.
“It may take a minute for them to respond and open the gate,” shouted Tim over the enormous whirring of the helicopter blades.
Amelia nodded and wondered if she’d be blown off the platform and into the sea before they could ever reach the laboratory. She was imagining herself falling endlessly into the pacific when the door slid open and revealed an elevator hatch.
“Ah, here we are,” said Tim. He led them into the cage-like interior of the elevator. She got one last look at the blue-on-blue of the sea before the door slammed shut with a hydraulic surge. A dim light illuminated the back-side of the elevator gate. It read: PROJECT DOR.
The ground swayed and Amelia felt the familiar chill creep up her spine as the floor dropped underneath her.
“It’s about a 45-minute drop,” said Tim. “The lab is over 6000 meters below the surface, in the heart of The Abyss.”
“I wrote my thesis on the Mariana Trench,” said Amelia. “I know all about it.”
“I’m sure,” said Tim, adjusting his tie. It had gotten pulled out of his tan jacket from the force of the winds on the landing pad. Amelia took the chance to straighten her hair, strands of which were clinging to her cheeks. Once she felt put together, she took the chance to pry for some information about her new job.
And her new boss.
“How long have you been at the sea lab?” she asked.
Tim was staring into his phone. The blue glow illuminated his face in the dim elevator interior.
“About 5 years,” he said. “Since right after it started.”
“So you must be familiar with Dr. Hawkin.”
“Of course.” Tim’s eyes didn’t leave his phone. “Everyone knows Charles. In many ways, this is his project.”
“You called him Charles. Are you two close?”
“In my service as the ambassador for this project, you understand, I spend about three-quarters of my time above water. But the doctor never leaves. He’s committed to his research.”
Amelia recalled what she knew about the man named Charles Hawkin. He was a graduate from American Commonwealth University Boston and had skyrocketed to fame in his youth for his work in theoretical physics at the micro-level. He was supposedly an expert in quantum mechanics and applied research.
“You must be excited to see the lab for yourself.”.
“I’m a bit nervous,” she admitted.
“I would be, too,” he said. “It’s not every day you drop into The Abyss.”
The temperature in the elevator fell rapidly as they made their descent. Suddenly, she wished she’d worn warmer clothes. Through a thin window in the elevator hatch, she could see the sliding black surface of the tube that contained them. She knew from her research that the elevator shaft was connected to the space tether. That knowledge did nothing to settle her stomach, however.
When a light appeared in the window and she could see the hazy blue water, she turned to Tim for an explanation.
“Part of the elevator shaft is made from powerplex. It’s a transparent nano-carbon invented especially for United Space, but it’s especially useful for our research at Hydra Sea Lab.”
Now we’re getting to it, thought Amelia. The question that she’d been so desperate to ask escaped her mouth.
“How is the research proceeding?”
Tim gave her his phony smile and slid his oversized phone back into his jacket pocket.
“Don’t worry. All your questions will be answered at orientation.” Tim opened a latch in the floor of the elevator that Amelia hadn’t even known was there. He pulled a blue and white duffle bag from the opening, drew back the plastic zipper, and removed a pair of thick coats.
“Here.” He handed her one of the coats. “You’ll need this. It can get pretty cold.”
Amelia took the coat and slid it on one arm at a time. It fit but smelled like an old dishrag. Still, she was grateful for the warmth. As the elevator dropped further into the depths of the ocean the air grew colder and colder.
“The pressure outside only increases as we fall. At the bottom, where Sea Lab is, the pressure is unbelievable.”
“Is that really something you want to tell a person floating in a partially glass tube?”
“We’re perfectly safe in here,” he said. “The elevator shaft is subject to routine inspection.”
“It’s good to know that Dr. Hawkin runs a tight ship.”
Tim’s eyes narrowed.
“Charles won’t stand for anything less than perfection.”
To be continued…
Co-written with Harold J. Petty