Amelia was writing in her journal, intent on recording everything she’d learned over the last few days about Issac and his involvement with Dr. Hawkin. She had woken up that morning feeling like a cup that was overflowing.
The thoughts in her head needed somewhere to go. So she wrote. Pages and pages of words. She told her diary that being Issac’s replacement disturbed her. She confessed her anger toward Dr. Hawkin and his invasion of her privacy. She was so consumed by the writing, the chirping of her phone startled her. A message from Alexander lit up the display.
In it, he reminded her that she’d promised to help him with his latest project. Amelia was tempted to back out. With everything that had been going on, she’d completely forgotten about helping Alexander. She’d promised him that she’d pilot the Sea Walker. Doing so would also serve as her second training exercise for Project DOR.
In the end, she found herself unable to refuse him. Though she chose to ignore the message, a few minutes later, there was a knock on her door.
“Hello, Amelia.” She heard Alexander’s voice through the door. “Did you forget that we were supposed to run some tests? I’ve been trying to contact you.”
She sighed and invited Alexander into her room.
“It’s a little spartan,” he said, eyeing her quarters.
“No pictures of your family? Or something from home?” His eyes fell on her diary, which lay open on her desk. She moved to close the book.
“I haven’t had a chance to do much decorating,” Amelia said, rubbing the back of her neck, as she often did when embarrassed. “My sister is sending me some posters, though. I’ve been trying to stay in touch with family through video calls.”
“Me too!” he smiled. “My dad calls me all the time. I tell him I’m working on something important, but he just makes jokes about me being underwater. He calls us all mermaids.” Alexander laughed.
Amelia imagined Sea Lab as a mermaid kingdom. Was it not an underwater city? Perhaps the comparison wasn’t far off. Amelia was eager to get started with Alexander’s tests, if only so she could get back to the task of unraveling Dr. Hawkin’s research.
“So what are we testing?”
Alexander leaned close to her and lowered his voice. “The Captain and I outfitted one of the Walkers with a diamond-bit drill. We can use it to collect samples from the vents along the trench. And that’s just one of the upgrades we installed.”
“Sounds exciting,” she lied. “I’m surprised they don’t already have a drill for extracting samples.”
“The Sea Walker’s were designed for underwater construction. They have pincers for moving steel plates and clearing rocks. The original series was used to build Sea Lab itself. It’s our project to turn them into more advanced science vessels.”
“I’ll be happy to help you,” said Amelia, hesitantly, still trying to think of an excuse for not participating. “I just need a few minutes to get ready, then I’ll meet you in the common area.”
“Okay. I’ll be waiting.” When Alexander left, she hid her diary in the secret compartment under her bed, along with Issac’s research notes. After the false panel was back in place, she changed into a warm sweater and took a deep breath, looking in the small mirror on the back of the door. She straightened her clothes.
“Hold it together, Amelia. You can do this.”
She resolved to follow through with her promise. She shouldn’t allow her problems to affect Alexander’s work.
Turning on her heel, she marched to the common room. Alexander was waiting for her, sipping coffee from a ceramic cup and fiddling with a game that someone had left on the round table in the center of the room. The dark-haired mechanic was pushing the pieces -- black and white stones-- mindlessly on the board with his finger when Amelia approached. He appeared deep in thought.
“Ready when you are,” she announced. Alexander looked up from the table. His usual cheerfulness was absent, replaced with a sadness she’d never seen in him before. She was about to ask what was wrong, but he spoke before she could say anything.
“I’m sorry. If you’re ready, we can get going.”
“Is there something wrong?”
“I don’t mean to pry, because I understand privacy. Trust me. I hate it when people pry into my life.” She was thinking of Dr. Hawkin holding her diary. She felt her cheeks flush with anger. “Especially when I don’t want them to. Some things a person wants to keep to herself. But if you need someone to talk to, I can be that person.”
They were interrupted by Doctor Strudor. He entered clumsily, allowing the door to slam against the wall behind him. She recognized him from the announcement party. Amelia knew he was doing research with Dr. Yamamoto, but beyond that, she knew hardly anything about the man. He was chubby and balding, in his late forties, and wearing a white lab coat. He gave them both an awkward smile, hardly looking up from the paper-thin tablet he carried in his crooked arm.
“Maybe some other time,” said Alexander. He wiped his cheeks with the back of his hand. Only then did she notice the wetness in his eyes. He’s been crying.
“Let’s go,” he said. “I only have an hour blocked in for our test. It will have to be enough.” She followed him out of the common room and past the command center. The elevator was rising; she could see the numbers ticking indicating the current depth. 2300. 2350. 2400.
“Someone’s coming down from the surface,” said Amelia. Alexander opened the doors that led to the access stairs.
“Looks like it,” he said, absentmindedly.
Ignoring his funk, Amelia wondered who might be coming to join them in Sea Lab. Perhaps it was an official from the UN? Her mind went back to Issac’s research notes. Had he ever delivered his message, like he’d promised to in his notes? Did anyone else know what she knew about the nature of their research?
It was a shame Alexander was in such a terrible mood. He seemed like someone she could trust. She would have loved nothing more than to tell him everything she’d learned. Writing it down in the diary had made her feel better, but it wasn’t enough. She would eventually have to confide in someone.
But it couldn’t be Alexander, apparently. As they moved through the pipeworks and meshwork of the Sea Lab’s underbelly, the mechanical engineer remained curiously quiet. He didn’t speak until they arrived at the orange portal that led into the Open Ocean Research Lab (OORL). The acronym was painting on the door.
“The Captain is supposed to meet us down here.”
Amelia hadn’t spoken to the Captain since her first training session in the Sea Walker. In such a small place, Amelia imagined it would be difficult not to run into everyone all the time. Curiously enough, the inhabitants of Sea Lab could remain quite elusive. She had learned that the so-called “city in the sea,” while small, had many nooks and crannies. There were little hideaways and places to disappear. Even the blueprints she’d pulled up on the computer didn’t show every room and passageway in Sea Lab. Some areas, it appeared, had been left off the maps. Perhaps purposefully.
The portal opened with a blast of cold air and she entered the poolside lab. Lights flashed in the water. She could see the dark silhouettes of the Walkers hanging from the ceiling.
“Captain?” shouted Alexander.
Amelia’s eyes went to the control room in the back of the lab, but the windows were dark. It appeared they were alone.
“I wonder where the Captain is? It’s not like him to be late.”
“He seems the punctual type,” observed Amelia.
“He very much is.” Alexander was looking up at the Sea Walkers with a flashlight he’d retrieved from a toolbox propped against the lab wall. From her angle, Amelia glimpsed the chassis of the machine. Wide gears met the hydraulic pumps that controlled the machine's lateral propulsion.
“Is something wrong?”
“Everything looks fine,” said Alexander, switching off the flashlight. “I’ll turn on the overheads, just give me a sec.”
Amelia followed Alexander into the control room. He navigated the darkness and sat down at the terminal.
With a wave of his hand, the screen came to life. He slid his fingers across the panel and began tapping buttons on the computer. As he did, the lights in the lab came on one-by-one, illuminating the pool and the underside of the Sea Walkers. Through the glass panel, she saw the red Walker suspended by large metal bracers. It floated ten feet above the water’s surface; its shadow danced on the rippling water of the pool like the shadow of a monster. The dark glass bowl that covered the cockpit seemed to swallow the light, hiding the interior and the pilot’s seat. She grew tense thinking about getting inside it again.
It wasn’t that she was afraid of getting hurt. She was more afraid of doing something wrong and disappointing Alexander. Her graduate studies hadn’t included working with heavy machinery. With everything that was going on, including the situation with Dr. Hawkin, she was having difficulty focusing on the task at hand. Any error, no matter how small, could prove fatal when she was out in the field.
“I sent a message to the Captain. I’m sure he’ll be here soon. In the meantime, I’m going to fire up the Walker and we’ll get you in the pilot’s seat.”
Amelia nodded, biting her lower lip. Alexander didn’t know it, but she was wondering how on Earth she’d be able to do this task. The last time had taken every bit of her nerve and mental command. And that was before she’d known the man in charge of the entire operation was reading her diary.
Alexander put his hand on her shoulder. “When you get back to the surface, we’ll share a cup of coffee. Just like last time.”
“That sounds really good right now,” replied Amelia.
“Don’t worry, this exercise won’t take long. I’ve installed some new systems, including upgrades to the onboard navigation and pilot interface. My goal is to make the unit easier to use. Too many of the engineers build things for other engineers. What’s needed is an artist’s touch.”
Amelia smiled at him. “And you have that artist’s touch?”
Alexander tapped the screen and the mechanical arm holding the Walker leaped in action, lowering the aquatic vessel.
“I’d like to think so but you can judge for yourself.”
When the mechanical arm stopped, the Walker was on the side of the pool submerged up to its neck in water. With its hemispherical dome, it resembled a giant cyclops with terrifying proportions. The two pinchers at its side were like elongated arms.
Alexander slid his hand over a plate at the base of the cockpit. Blue lights danced over the plate’s surface as Alexander pulled his hand away. The dome opened with a hiss.
“In we go,” he said. Amelia took the metal rungs of the ladder slowly before climbing into the cockpit of the Walker.
She settled into the pilot’s chair under the watchful gaze of Alexander, who looked down on her from the rim of the Sea Walker.
“What about the new diamond drill you mentioned?” she asked.
“We’ll test it, too. After I close the dome, we’ll engage the system control. Then you’ll have access to the upgraded system’s interface.” He flashed a warm, reassuring smile. “I hope you like the artistic touches I’ve added.”
The dome closed and she faced the dark glass waiting for the interface and the feedback from the cameras to appear.
She remembered the headset under the seat and hurriedly put it on. Just as the neckpiece slid into place, she heard Alexander’s voice in her inner ear.
“Amelia, can you read me?”
“Loud and clear, Alexander.”
“Great! I’m going to fire up the Walker now. You should see the interface and the control system.”
The cockpit screen came to life and then a flower appeared floating above the interface. One by one, the petals fell off and transformed into control panels.
“Alexander, is this your work?”
“Why? Do you like it?”
“That makes me happy. Yes, it is my work. When I found out the Walkers had holographic capabilities, I couldn’t help myself. Plus a little animation makes the entire experience a bit more friendly.”
“It does. Your flower was a nice surprise.”
“Okay, now let’s check out the control panel. Before, you had a series of sliders that controlled speed and direction. I’ve given you some options that replace those sliders with other controls. Tap the green button in the corner to change control types.”
Amelia found the green button and tapped it a few times. Each time the interface rearranged itself and altered the controls. The slider options that she’d had before were still available among the choices, but now she had other choices as well, such as a virtual steering wheel and something that resembled the layout of a video game controller.
After flipping through her options, Amelia decided to try out the video game-style controls. She missed playing video games with her kid sister and the control layout on the Sea Walker looked similar to the gamepad she’d used to play their favorite game: Blaster Cats!
With her hands hovering over the virtual controller, she told Alexander she was ready.
“Okay. Good. I’m going to release the Walker in 3...2...1…” She heard a loud click as the Walker was set free from its harness. Through the black glass of the Walker’s dome-shaped visor, she watched the world tilt sideways as the Walker sank into the pool.
Alexander waved at her from the control room. She could see him through the glass wall of the lab. He kept waving until she disappeared beneath the pool’s surface.
The Walker sank in a cloud of bubbles and landed on the floor of the pool. Inside the machine, Amelia tapped the control panel and turned on the camera feed. The interior of the dome seemed to become transparent, showing a panoramic view of the pool. The floor was made of loose gravel and the walls were reinforced concrete painted grey with the yellow SEA LAB logo.
“Before I open the hatch, why don’t you try moving the Walker. Try walking over to the gate area.”
“Okay, I’ll give it a try.” With some hesitation, she nudged the left control stick forward using her thumb. The Walker barely moved.
“You don’t have to be gentle with it. The controls are actually not very sensitive.”
“Oh. I see.” This time Amelia pushed harder on the virtual joystick and the Walker lurched forward with surprising speed, propelled by its rear jets. Amelia felt almost like she was riding a motor scooter.
“Pull back on the stick to reverse your speed.” Alexander’s voice was stern, but he didn’t yell at her. Amelia pulled back with her thumb and set the stick to the center. The speedometer read “0.0 km/h.”
The Sea Walker came to an abrupt stop about a meter away from the ceramic wall.
“I thought you said the controls weren’t sensitive,” said Amelia.
“Perhaps my idea of sensitive and your idea of sensitive are not the same thing,” said Alexander. “Luckily, I was prepared for this contingency. There’s a small computer icon in the lower right of the panel. You’ll be able to adjust the sensitivity of the controls.”
Amelia found the settings menu and lowered the sensitivity from 7.0 to 5.5.
“That’s a lot slower,” said Alexander.
“I’m not in a hurry,” said Amelia. “Besides, I don’t want to find out what will happen if I crash this thing.”
Alexander laughed in her ear. “Don’t be afraid of that. If I have to, I can remotely control the unit from here. And even if you did crash, the Sea Walker is built to withstand more than 16,000 PSI.”
“That sounds like a lot,” said Amelia.
“The pressure of the ocean around you is enough to crush a person into pulp if you were outside of the Sea Walker. But barring some major issue with the unit, which I’ve carefully inspected, the Sea Walker can take that kind of pressure in strides.”
“You really picked the worst time to tell me this stuff,” said Amelia.
“Are you ready to take it out on the seafloor?”
“As ready as I’ll ever be.”
Alexander didn’t respond to her last statement. The gate opened and exposed her to the open ocean. It was pitch black at this depth. The lights from Sea Lab illuminated only a few meters of the stony ocean bottom. Beyond that, she could see lights in the distance, placed there long ago by the construction crew. They looked like stars floating in the endless abyss. The cold, inhuman ocean lay bare to her. She shivered.
“Just walk outside and try moving around to test the controls.”
Amelia commanded the machine to carry her through the gate. As she moved, a small map icon flashed in the corner of the screen.
“What’s this flashing?”
“That’s the new navigation system,” replied Alexander. “I’m quite proud of this tool if you don’t mind me saying so.”
“Should I push it?”
“Not yet. Could you try spinning the unit using the right control stick?”
Amelia moved the right stick using her thumb and the Sea Walker began to rotate along its vertical axis. She moved 180 degrees and faced the sea lab. She had moved about 100 meters away from the gate. From this angle, Amelia could see the stacked blocks of Sea Lab rising up along the foundation of the space tether. Partially built into the rock, the lab resembled a stack of children’s blocks, each smaller than the last, rising up from the mud of the ocean floor, its surface speckled with a hundred tiny lights.
“Okay, now you can try the navigation tools.”
Amelia eagerly pushed the map button. An image appeared, hovering over the input panel, showing the exact topographical layout of the surrounding terrain. Sea Lab was displayed as a series of rectangles. The seafloor was rendered in brown and green lines.
“The map defaults to wireframe mode. I thought it was easier on the eyes. If you want to switch to a photographic display, the option is available.”
“I like it the way it is,” said Amelia. “It’s easy to read.”
Alexander said nothing, but Amelia thought she could hear him smile.
“It’s good work, isn’t it?”
“Very good.” Amelia studied the map. She knew the area from her research before coming to Sea Lab. Suddenly, Amelia realized she was one of the first human beings to walk this part of the Earth. While human civilization had explored the entirety of the globe and even visited the moon and mars, the ocean floor still remained a mystery hidden in the deep.
That mystery lay open before her. Her mind raced, imagining the millions of years that had passed down here in the dark. On the map, Amelia could see the lines that traced the Mariana trench. They sank thousands of meters deeper into the Earth’s crust. The deep ocean turbines lay to her west, nestled along the same mountain hills that held the space tether.
“What does this thing have for analytics?”
“I thought you’d never ask. The standard Walker comes with basic sensors: altimeter, sonar, photometer, vacuum gauge, etc. Things you’d find on any deep-sea vessel. We’ve upgraded our units to better suit the work we do at Sea Lab. Each of our Walker’s comes with a hydraulic drill for collecting samples of the ocean floor as well as a heat sensor. As I mentioned earlier, your unit has been outfitted with a diamond bit. The deep-sea thermal vents, while beautiful, can reach temperatures of 400 degrees celsius. That’s hot enough to melt a normal drill and hot enough to damage your Walker, so keep an eye on the temp gauge if you get close to one.”
“I’m not seeing this information on the panel.”
“You’ll have to press the button that looks like a cogwheel to access the sensors.”
Amelia found the button and opened the sensors panel. Immediately, the inside of the dome lit up with windows of technical information. She saw the sensors Alexander had described, plus others that provided her with the make-up of the surrounding water and current seismic activity of the Earth’s crust.
Amelia was so absorbed in the data she almost forgot she was in danger of being crushed into a pulp. Her scientific training and curious mind began to race with excitement as she imagined the possibilities and discoveries that lay waiting in this unexplored region of the Earth. It was estimated that less than 80% of the ocean’s floor had been explored, so it was very possible Amelia may see something that no other human being had ever seen before. A chill ran through her at the thought of making a scientific breakthrough.
After the crisis period at the turn of the 21st century, the world entered a golden age of mutual trust and shared responsibility. While scientific knowledge was socialized and the powerful countries agreed to share their research with the developing countries, it took many years before reality could come close to humanity's shared dream of equality. At first, most of the world’s efforts were focused above, towards the heavens. China, Europe, and the newly formed American Commonwealth set their sights on the stars and invested heavily in alternatives to chemical rocketry. Years of research and funding produced only mild gains in propulsion technology, and it was only in the last decade that a working fusion core had been developed. Still, their work had produced leaps in theoretical physics that made things like Sea Lab and its search for new energy sources possible.
Looking at the data reminded her of Issac’s research notes. Was all this information flowing into the Data Lab for Dr. Hawking to analyze? Like Issac, she had no idea why the American Commonwealth would be writing secret experiment programs. Issac’s untimely death shrouded the whole mystery in a vale of fog.
Surrounded by the pitch-black water, Amelia grew afraid.
“Your heart rate suddenly increased.” It was the Captain’s voice. Amelia didn’t know when he’d arrived, but she was glad to hear him. “Amelia? Do you read me?”
Amelia responded immediately.
“Captain? Can you hear me?”
“Amelia? Do you copy? Amelia? Alexander, I think we lost contact. See if you can boost the power. Amelia hold...” But his last words were cut off by static.
“Captain?” she repeated.
The lights in the Sea Walker flickered rapidly and the data windows went out one by one until she was left in the deep dark of the ocean floor. Only her input panel remained online, and it showed that her power reserves were depleted.
“Alexander? Captain?” She shook the headset, but there was only silence.
She panicked. Her heart felt like it was going to leap out of her chest as she struggled to catch her breath. The Walker had died facing Sea Lab. Through the tinted glass of the visor, the castle-like structure of Sea Lab transformed into a dark vision, full of fiery caves and nightmares.
Closing her eyes to dispel the nightmare, Amelia focused on breathing. A psychologist at her university had taught her the technique for dealing with panic attacks. Back then she’d struggled to keep herself together if she forgot to write a paper or failed an exam.
It was a little more understandable when she was at the bottom of the ocean floor when the only thing between her and a watery grave was a robot with a low battery.
She took deep breaths and exhaled slowly, counting to 4 with each cycle. When she opened her eyes, she saw the other Sea Walker coming toward her from the hatch bay.
Co-written with Harold J. Petty