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Something Deep: Part Four
A subnautical, solarpunk thriller
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Captain Pol led Amelia down a latticework shaft lit by a series of overhead LEDs that gave only just enough light to see. The space was much too tight for her comfort, and Amelia prayed they would reach their destination quickly. Their footsteps echoed loudly in the dark, suggesting that the surrounding chamber must have been quite large. This only added to her frustration at having to crawl through an unnecessarily small maintenance tunnel.
“It’s a little tight, don’t you think,” said Amelia.
“I know it’s cramped,” said Captain Pol. “But when they built the lab, comfort wasn’t what they had in mind.” He had a scruffy beard and wore a white headband. His hair was the color of charcoal and when he looked at her she could feel his full attention and focus on her. It made her feel like she mattered to him. She recognized it as natural leadership.
“I don’t mean to complain, Captain Pol,” she said.
“Don’t worry about it. And most folks just call me ‘Captain’ ‘round here.”
The tunnel took a sharp turn, and then another. She was beginning to wonder if the Captain had led her into a labyrinth.
“This is it,” he said after they’d come down a thin flight of metal stairs. They were looking at a bright orange door with a small valve in the middle that looked like the steering wheel of a car; it was chrome with three spokes. It made a loud squeak when Pol turned the wheel, and they both winced.
“Probably needs a shot of lubricant,” he said, turning the valve. The squeak disappeared and the Captain pushed open the hatchway that led into the water lab.
“We have two water labs: East and South,” he said. “This is the south lab, where we keep the Sea Walkers. But before we can get started with your training, you’ll need to sign some documents. Follow me.”
The lab was easily 60 meters long with a large pool in the center. The pool was illuminated from below while the ceiling was dark and lined with heavy machinery. Amelia followed Pol around the edge of the pool, which was fenced off with aluminum rods fitted with steel wire. There was an office on the far side of the lab. Inside was a wrap-around desk that followed the parameter of the room.
“Take a seat, please.”
Amelia found the nearest chair and waited while Pol poked around on a tablet.
“Here we go,” he said, dropping the tablet in front of her. “I just need you to sign here,” He pointed to a line on the screen and handed her the stylus.
“What am I signing?”
“It’s just a formal waiver. It says you understand that operating the machines comes with certain liabilities, and you’ll wave your rights in the case of injury.”
“What do you mean by ‘certain liabilities,’” she asked?
“I’ll go over it all in the training,” he said. “But we’ve all signed it. Even if you don’t plan on using the Sea Walker in your research, DOR requires that everyone knows the fundamental procedures.”
She signed her name, admiring her signature afterward.
“And date it, please”
She wrote “September 22, 2059” and returned the tablet to the Captain.
“Excellent,” said the Captain. “Now we can begin the training. Tell me, which do you prefer: red, blue, or green?
He smiled through his beard. “That’s my favorite too. I’ll let you in on a little secret: the red one is the best of the three. I’ll let you take it for a test drive.”
He docked the tablet in the chrome tray and slid his fingers across its surface. A light appeared above the pool and Amelia could see clearly now the shape of the machines that hung there. The large robotic suits had wide legs and hooked feet. Hydraulic arms with long pincers hung on either side of the machine. She could see a domed, glass cockpit as well, but the interior was dark.
“The D.O.E. 3250 was built for deep-sea exploration. It can withstand pressures as high as 1000 atmospheres. We use them for sensitive operations as they’ve been outfitted with a variety of specialized sensors and equipment.”
They were interrupted by the sound of the hatch at the end of the lab swinging open. Through the glass window that stretched the length of the office, Amelia watched a dark man in cream overalls climb through the doorway.
“That’s Alexander,” said Captain Pole. “I summoned him to assist us.”
Amelia watched Alexander walk the length of the catwalk that lined the pool. He was studying the walkers that were still suspended above the water. Alexander came into the office and went immediately before Captain Pol.
“I’m sorry I’m late, Captain.”
“Actually, you’re just in time,” said the Captain. “This is Amelia, our new recruit.”
Alexander was clean-cut, with bright eyes and a wide grin that he flashed as he shook her hand. Amelia returned the smile and meant it. Something about Alexander put her at ease. She suspected he had that effect on most people. His easy manner suggested a kind spirit.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “The Sea Walkers aren’t dangerous if you follow our instructions. And they’re surprisingly easy to operate once you get the controls down.”
“Help Amelia into the red unit,” said Captain Pol. “I want to get her underwater ASAP. We’ve got a lot of ground to cover and not much time.”
Following his finger, the trolley motor in the ceiling went to work. The red Sea Walker jerked and swung before it was guided to the edge of the pool along the rales in the ceiling.
The Captain opened a drawer in the desk and removed a black lavalier. He snapped it to his collar and tested the reception.
“You’ll have one in the unit. Alexander will get you started and then I’ll take over through your unit’s audio system.”
Amelia followed Alexander out to the pool where the red Sea Walker waited partially submerged in the pool water. Alexander tapped a panel on the shoulder of the machine and the cockpit visor opened with a hiss. Inside it, she could see a pilot’s seat and a black control panel.
“The unit is locked in place until you hit the release,” said Alexander. “You can climb in through the top like this.” He used the two ladder rungs attached to the arm to climb up into the cockpit and then dropped into the seat. The whole machine shook when he did; it was held in place by the rigging coming from the ceiling.
He pointed to the control panel. “Tap this to activate the Walker.”
He slapped the panel with his pointer finger. The cockpit glowed from the light of the dozen or so menus that appeared on the glass panel’s surface.
“It also has voice control, activated by a series of command words. For example: system superuser deactivate.”
The panel went dark. Alexander climbed out of the pilot’s chair and down the ladder rungs.
Amelia climbed the ladder rungs of the arm. It reminded her of a tall box with ladders and slides that they’d had in the playground near her house when she was a child. She had loved to climb up to the top of the box and look down at the other children. She had felt proud then, but she felt nervous now. When she reached the cockpit, she dropped into the soft, black chair. The chair seemed to swallow her as she wiggled into a comfortable position.
“The safety harness is above you,” Alexander told her. He had climbed up the rungs behind her and was looking down at her from above the cockpit. “Pull it across your body and fasten the belt in the corner of the chair.”
She found the harness and fastened it. It pulled her against the chair snuggly.
“Perfect. Now activate the control panel.”
She tapped the screen with the tip of her index finger. She was bombarded by menus and options. The light of the screens was almost too bright.
“There’s a headset in the compartment at your knees. You can use it to communicate with the Captain.”
Amelia fumbled in the dark between her knees and found a small metal bar. She pulled it and revealed a hidden drawer beneath the pilot’s chair. Inside was a black commlink about the size of her thumb. Sliding it into place along her collar, she heard it beep when it detected the appropriate position from her throat.
“Testing,” she said. “Captain, can you read me?”
“Loud and clear, Amelia,” said the Captain. She could hear the captain’s voice in her ear, coming through the commlink. “We’re all set here. You just need to run the system’s test on your unit before we drop you in the water.”
Alexander was giving the captain a thumbs up. “Okay,” he said. “We’re almost ready to go. You need to find the start routine. It’s the green button on your right.”
She ran her finger along the control’s surface until she found a glowing green button.
“That’s it, Press it,”
Amelia laid her index finger on the button and she felt the machine come to life around her. The internal OS moved each limb in turn, testing its capabilities. The Sea Walker swayed with each adjustment of its mechanical arms and legs. When the OS had tested each limb, and the pincers, the control panel flashed a few times and the word “Ready” appeared on the display.
“You’re all good!” said Alexander. He started down the rungs of the arm. When he was outside she heard the captain’s voice in the commlink.
“Go ahead and hit the ready button.”
Her finger lingered over the control panel. There’s no going back now, she told herself. Her heart was racing at the thought of being trapped inside a machine at the bottom of the ocean. She didn’t like confined spaces, especially when she was miles underwater.
You can do this. Amelia summoned every ounce of courage she could find and took a deep breath. She pictured Emma’s face. Her sister would be so proud to see what she was doing.
Thinking of her family, Amelia pushed the “Ready” button.
“Here we go,” said the captain.
There was a loud whir and the glass dome began to drop over the open cockpit. It was tinted extremely dark, so she couldn’t see much once it was lowered.
“How do I see anything in here?” she said.
“Just give it a minute,” said the captain.
Once the cockpit was secure, the control panel notified her that operations were set to autopilot. Suddenly, the entire glass cockpit transformed into a panoramic screen. She could see in every direction in hi-definition.
“Cameras in the suit feed directly into the visual display. You also have the options of infrared, night vision, and topographical layouts.”
“This is cool,” she said.
“You said it. Let’s take you down to the seafloor.”
As the Sea Walker was lowered via mechanical arm, Amelia watched the water rise over the cockpit display. It was almost like watching a fish tank fill up. Once under the water, she was surrounded by the metal cage of the underwater lab. The unit dropped twenty meters and came to rest on the concrete bed of the lab’s pool.
“I’ll open the gate,” said Captain Pol.
The far wall slid open revealing the abyssal darkness of the ocean.
“I’ve already given the unit coordinates. It’ll have no problem getting you around on its own. The intelligence is that good.”
The Sea Walker moved toward the gate. Amelia felt it glide over the seabed and drift out into the open ocean. It carried her about twenty meters away from the lab before abruptly stopping. Looking up through the cockpit, she could see the Sea Lab glowing with neon lights in what felt like the darkest depths of the universe. Amelia had never felt so utterly disconnected from everything in the world. She could see the space tether rise for an eternity in the night that wasn’t night. The tether was marked by powerful lights, like a line of stars. It was a strange constellation.
“Three-point seven two eight miles,” she said.
“It’s a long way down,” said the captain. “Kinda feels like you’re all alone out there.”
“Yes, it does. I was just thinking something like that.”
“Why don’t you try moving the Walker yourself.”
“Use the control panel. I’ve set it to manual. In front of you are two sliders. One sets the rotation and the other sets the forward speed. Slide the one marked rotation and you’ll spin the Sea Walker.”
Amelia followed the captain’s instructions and the Sea Walker rotated to face east. She knew this because the control panel also showed her direction, as well as her GPS coordinates.
When the Walker completed its 180-degree turn, Amelia had a full view of the mountains that ran along the rim of the Mariana Trench; their contours were marked by powerful lights. Again she had the sensation of seeing stars. It was almost like looking out of a cave at a sliver of the night sky.
“Beautiful,” she said. The sense of vertigo returned. It was difficult for her to maintain her orientation. She focused on the control panel, telling herself she was facing east. After she’d repeated it to herself so many times, it began to feel correct and she had a sense of space.
“Are you okay?”
“Now let’s try operating the pincers. You have two buttons in front of you, labeled arm L and R. Tap one of them to engage the pincer.”
She pressed a button labeled ARM.R. A row of buttons appeared with various options for operating the machine.
“It looks complicated, but just hit the top button. It’s the one labeled ‘pinch.’”
Amelia pressed the button with the flat of her index finger and watched the machine's arm reach forward. When it was fully extended, the long pincers squeezed together.
“Now I press the release button?”
“Very good,” said the captain.
She pressed the button and the Sea Walker opened its pincer. The right arm moved back into its original position.
“You’re doing great. When you’re ready. Let’s take a walk back to the lab. That’s all we’ll do today.”
“I think I can handle that.”
She rotated the Sea Walker to face the lab. A bright light shone from its belly and through the twin pincers, revealing a stretch of rock and sand leading toward the open gate of the lab. Her finger slid the toggle on the forward slider and the Sea Walker began its slow crawl back to Sea Lab
“Does nothing live out here?”.
“The pressure is too strong for most things to survive,” said the captain. “You’ll get the occasional sea cucumber, but that’s about it. I can see your position on the map overlay. Using the Sea Walker’s legs is much slower than the onboard propeller, but the feet can dig into the rock. There are times when such a thing is necessary.”
“With the lights and the tether, I imagine Sea Lab has caused some disturbances in the ecology of this area.”
“Not really. Like I said, there isn’t much that can survive down here.”
“How often are the Sea Walkers used for research?”
“Not often. They’re mostly used for maintenance and recon. The research team relies mostly on unpiloted drones for data collection.”
“I see.” She was near the gate, waiting patiently while the Sea Walker took laborious steps with its hydraulic legs, like a mechanical Sisyphus. The flashing lights along the surface of Sea Lab glowed like neon signs in the deep. When she stepped through the gate, Captain Pol took back command of the vessel. The sliders and buttons were replaced by a blueprint of Sea Lab.
“I’ll let the autopilot guide you into position before I pull you up.”
The Sea Walker glided into the center of the room, facing northwest. Looking up to the surface of the pool, she could see the dark ceiling of the lab and the steel arm of the railing coming to meet her. It made contact with the suit and Amelia felt the machine rising.
When the cockpit splashed through the surface she was greeted by the sight of Alexander waving from behind the metal guardrail. The arm swung and guided the Sea Walker into position against the pool wall.
“That’s it,” said the captain. “You’ve completed basic training.”
“Yay,” she said. “It wasn’t so bad.”
“Go ahead and double-tap the control panel to deactivate the unit. I’ll open the cockpit remotely.”
A few seconds after the control panel went dark, the cockpit lifted, She felt the whoosh of air as the glass slid back into the vessel. The sudden change of pressure made her dizzy.
“If you feel a little woozy, don’t be alarmed,” said the captain. “There’s a pressure difference between the suit and the lab, but you won’t get the bends or anything.
It took nearly five minutes for Amelia to feel sturdy enough to climb out of the Sea Walker. She took the metal rungs of the ladder on the arm of the D.O.E, slowly, and accepted Alexander’s hand when he offered to help her down.
When her feet hit the grating that ran around the perimeter of the pool, she was relieved to feel solid ground again. She leaned back against the wall and put her palms flat against the cold steel plate.
“You need a strong cup of coffee,” said Alexander.
“Oh my god. That sounds amazing.”
“One cup of hot joe coming up. I always love a cup of coffee after I go for a spin in the D.O.E.”
Amelia followed the tall man back to the lab’s office. They found Captain Pol plugged into the terminal.
“He’s coding,” said Alexander. “Writing some patches for the latest software we received from HQ.” The office had a slim back door. Inside was a room barely larger than a closet. It led to a counter with a sink and a refrigerator. Behind the kitchen was another door with a picture of a toilet on the front.
“Necessity overrides convenience here,” said Alexander. He took the lid off the coffee pot that sat next to the sink. There was a box of coffee pods in the counter above the sink. He put one in the coffee pot and hit the start button. The small kitchen was soon filled with the aroma of strong coffee. It brought a smile to Amelia’s face.
“I love the smell of coffee.”
“Me too,” said Alexander. He brought down two mugs from the cabinet. They were black with no markings, nothing to distinguish one from the other.
“How do you take it?”
“With cream, if you have it.”
“Sure do,” Alexander opened the refrigerator and pulled out a steel pitcher. He poured cream into her glass. She took the steaming cup in both hands and let its warmth flow through her whole body. When she brought the cup to her lips and took a sip, the stress, the uneasiness, melted away.
“You’re a lifesaver,” she said.
Alexander smiled. “No problem. I’ve spent a lot of time underwater. Captain Pol and I do most of the modifications ourselves, and I’m usually the one who goes down. That’s probably a little too much shop talk for a scientist like yourself. What I mean to say is, being out there can be a little eerie. People aren’t meant to be this deep underwater. It’ll get to your nerves if you aren’t careful.”
“It’s nice to know I’m not alone in those feelings.”
“Anytime you need to talk.” He lifted up his mug to her in a sign of comradery. “I could sure use the company. If you haven’t noticed, there isn’t much to do around here but work.”
“Dr. Hawkin did warn me about the lack of nightlife.”
Alexander laughed. It was a good, hearty laugh. “Look, the work is riveting. I could stabilize compressors and repair faulty gaskets all day, I really could. But week after week in the deep dark sea, well I guess you long for a little interaction. Something that reminds you of what normal is. A chess game or your favorite book.”
“That’s easy. It’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
“See.” Alexander took a sip of his coffee and pointed his finger at her. “I knew you had good taste. I’ve always been a fan of the classics.”
Once they’d finished their coffee, they left the mugs in the sink and stepped back out into the office. Captain Pol was waiting for them.
“Amelia, I’ve just spoken to Dr. Hawkin. You’re to report to the data lab on the main level. I believe he’s ready to give you your first assignment.”
Amelia extended her hand to the Captain, more out of nervousness than a sense of social duty. She was relieved when he returned her gesture with a friendly smile.
“It was a pleasure, Amelia. I’m looking forward to your next training session.”
“Me too,” lied Amelia. She didn’t think she’d ever get used to sea walking, but she was grateful for the help she’d received. “You’ve been a most excellent instructor and I understood the necessity of the training.”
“Do you need a guide back to the stairs?” asked Alexander.
“I think I can manage, thank you.”
She left the laboratory office hoping she hadn’t come across negatively. She hadn’t meant to. She didn’t want to gain a reputation for not being able to carry her own weight. With one last look at the Sea Walker--still suspended in the water--Amelia turned the valve and opened the orange hatch that led into the mechanical shaft. She locked the door by reversing the wheel’s direction and then followed the path back to the stairwell.
The stairs were painted white and the wall had a fat orange stripe and two thin blue ones. It was a sterile aesthetic, and the air stank of mildew. Climbing the mesh stairs up two flights brought her to the elevator which she rode to the main level. In the elevator with her was a researcher in a lab coat. The woman was carrying a computer and speaking Japanese into her headset. She was quite frantic, though Amelia couldn’t follow the conversation. Her knowledge of the Japanese language was rudimentary.
With a bright ding, the elevator door opened and Amelia found herself on the research level across from a glass-paneled office. She was supposed to head straight to the data lab after her training--that’s what the message from Dr. Hawkin had said-- but she wanted to get her jacket from her room first. The pants and long sleeve shirt she’d put on that morning were proving inadequate for the underwater lab’s frigid temperatures. It wasn’t like they didn’t have heat or power. She couldn’t understand why it had to be so cold.
It had honestly been warmer in the Sea Walker!
Her dorm was through the commons. She passed a group of maintenance workers sitting at a table beside a fern in a ceramic vase. They were drinking bottles of water and laughing at something. Other than that the commons was empty. It was a short walk to the dorms and the halls were deserted. Everyone was working.
Her door was the last on the right. Number 314. Her finger went automatically to the keypad, but stopped.
The door was open. Not by much, only a crack, but she could see someone inside. Amelia had always been a private person and the thought of a stranger in her room made her heart pound.
“Excuse me,” she said, pushing open the door. The aluminum door flew back and Amelia found Dr. Hawkin sitting at her desk.
He was reading her diary.
Co-authored with Harold J. Petty.