“Are you alright?”
The Captain handed her a towel. She’d tripped climbing out of the Sea Walker and fallen into the pool. The Captain pulled her out. He squatted beside her, a toothpick in his mouth that he rolled between his teeth.
“Your hands are shaking.”
It was true. Amelia wrapped the towel around herself. The water had been freezing. Her body shook as it struggled to return to a normal temperature.
“That water is only about three degrees celsius,” said the Captain. “It’s nearly freezing!” Behind him, the blue Walker emerged from the water. locked in its metal cage. The hydraulic arm brought it to rest neatly behind the red Walker Amelia had piloted. Its dome opened and Alexander leaped out, flying down the rungs that hung from the Walker’s back.
“Amelia!” he shouted. “I’m so sorry. I hope you’re okay.”
“She fell in the pool getting out of the Walker,” said the Captain. “I think you gave the poor woman a fright. Do you know what happened?”
“I don’t know,” said Alexander. He and the Captain helped Amelia to her feet and the three of them went into the laboratory's office. Amelia fell into a chair in the corner as Alexander vanished into the back room. He returned a few minutes later with a steaming cup of freshly brewed coffee.
“Oh my god,” said Amelia. She’d never wanted anything so badly.
“I thought you could use some coffee,” said Alexander, placing the cup on the desk beside Amelia’s chair. “It’s the least I could do.”
“Any thoughts on what went wrong?” she asked.
“I have some thoughts,” said the Captain. He looked at Alexander.
“You think it was my program?”
“I told you adding all those fancy graphics would eat the battery life.”
“It’s not the graphics, sir.”
“Then what is it?”
“It’s probably just a faulty battery. I’ll test it.”
Alexander left the room and retrieved the battery from the red Walker. Amelia watched him open the hatch on the back of the unit and remove a cube about the size of a fist. Alexander turned it over in his hands, examining it in the light.
When he came into the lab, Alexander set the battery on the desk next to the door.
“It’s completely drained,” he said.
“Did you charge the batteries last night?”
“I did. Something must have gone wrong.”
“It’s got to be your code. I’m not trying to hurt your feelings, Alexander. I know you’re capable, but that’s the most logical explanation.”
Alexander nodded his head, admitting defeat.
“I don’t know what I did wrong, but I’ll review the code.” He turned to Amelia. She could see the moisture in his eyes. “I’m so sorry, Amelia. I hope you’ll forgive me.”
“I’m okay,” she said. “You rescued me, too.”
“You were never in any real danger,” said the Captain. “The Walkers have enough reserve power to keep life-support on for at least five hours. And that runs on the BIOS, so Alexander’s code can’t affect it.”
“Then everything is fine.” Amelia took a sip of the coffee. It was strong and hot. She already felt her strength returning. The nightmare at the bottom of the sea was fading like a bad dream. Now she watched Alexander and the Captain pour over the code looking for the error.
“It’s got to be that fancy graphic you added at the beginning. That flowery nonsense.”
“Art is not nonsense,” said Alexander.
“Regardless it has no place on a piece of machinery. Leave it in the university with the humanities departments.”
“I liked the rose,” said Amelia. “It made the experience less intimidating.”
“It’s supposed to be intimidating. The Sea Walkers aren’t toys.”
“If you had studied user experience and user interaction like I did,” said Alexander, “you’d have learned that the functionality of software depends just as much on the success of the interactive design as it does on the functionality of the code. After all, if the user can’t figure out how to make the machine do what they want, what use is it?”
The Captain crossed his arms. He was standing over Alexander who was seated at the desk digging through the code line by line.
“Did you want it to drain the battery and leave the user stranded at the bottom of the ocean?” asked the Captain.
Alexander didn’t reply. Instead, he redoubled his efforts. Using his finger, he dragged the screen, searching frantically for the mistake he’d made.
“Let me know if you want me to go over it with you,” said the Captain. There was only a hint of snark in his voice.
“If there’s a problem, I’ll find it.” Alexander didn’t bother to look away from the screen. This seemed to satisfy the Captain and he turned his attention to Amelia.
“We’re both really sorry for what happened. Once we fix the Walker, we’ll be back on track.”
“Hopefully you can find someone else to pilot the Sea Walker next time. I think I’ve had enough undersea scares for a while.”
“Alexander will just have to find a new guinea pig to test his creations.” The Captain turned back to the computer. Amelia could sense that he was eager to help Alexander debug the program. “In the meantime, I’ll sign off on your DOR training. You’ll be certified to pilot the Walker, if you need to.”
A notification appeared on Alexander’s screen.
“Hey Captain,” he said. “We have company.”
“Is someone coming?”
Alexander pointed to the lab. Amelia followed his finger to the door of the lab just as it swung open. The five-foot orange square with a chrome wheel in the center nearly slammed into the dark grey lab wall. Dr. Hawkin stepped through the portal and headed for the office.
Amelia, still wet from her fall in the pool, rose to attention. She kept the wool blanket around her. The Captain moved to open the door for the man who ran Sea Lab.
“Your highness,” said the Captain.
Dr. Hawkin frowned. “You know I hate when you call me that.”
“I’m sorry, sir. Sometimes I can’t help myself. Too many years in the military, I suppose.”
“Learn, Raymond. Learn to help yourself.” Hawkin surveyed the room, his eyes landing on Amelia.
“What can we do for you?” asked the Captain.
The doctor’s eyes moved back to the Captain, and then to the Walkers. “There’s been a malfunction in the turbine. Something the sensors picked up, but we can’t find it with the probe. We’ll have to send a team out in the Walkers.”
“Sure thing, boss,” said the Captain. He rubbed his scruffy chin between two fingers. “When do you want to start?”
“As soon as possible.”
“Units 2 and 3 are ready to go now. We just need pilots.”
“What’s wrong with Unit 1?” The doctor seems aggravated. “Isn’t that our best Walker?”
“It’s a minor programming error.” The Captain glanced at Amelia, but the glance said enough. She wasn’t about to rat them out to the doctor anyway.
“A programming error?”
“Ah ha!” Alexander rose from the chair with his fists in the air. “I found it.” He was smiling from ear to ear. He turned to Dr. Hawkin, who was scowling like an old witch. The smile fell off his face.
“I apologize,” said Alexander. “I was a little excited.”
“You’ve solved the programming error?” Dr. Hawkin continued to scowl at the engineer.
The malfunction in the turbine must be serious, Amelia thought. She’d never seen Dr. Hawkin in such a dark mood.
“I think I have,” Alexander responded. “I’ve found a bug in the navigation system anyway. You see, I’ve been trying to make the Walker’s easier to use so that we can potentially train more pilots,” Dr. Hawkin’s penetrating stare said it all. He wasn’t interested. The Captain stepped in to defend his friend.
“Alexander thinks that if we improve the user experience of the Walkers, we’ll see a better performance from the pilots.”
“That seems reasonable,” replied Hawkin.
“But we’ve only just installed the upgrades. They still need to be tested.”
“Things like this need to be run by me first,” said Hawkin. “Otherwise we end up in the situation we’re in, short a Walker just when we need it.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said the Captain.
“And take that toothpick out of your mouth. It’s disrespectful.”
Hawkin’s attention turned to Amelia. Her clothes were still damp from the pool water.
“What happened to you?”
“I slipped and fell in the pool.”
“I tell people they need to watch their step near the water,” said Captain. “It often appears dry, but then bam, you slip and you’re swimming.”
“Did you just come down here for the coffee?” Hawkin’s gaze was like a shark. He was studying her for any sign of weakness.
“I came to talk to Alexander.”
This seemed to satisfy him. He nodded. “Well, are you ready, Captain?”
“Of course. If you have a pilot, we can start the mission right away.”
“You’re the pilot,” said Hawkin. “I’ll command the mission. Alexander will assist me with any technical problems that arrive.” He pointed to Amelia. “You’ve had training, correct?”
The Captain attempted to interject. “She has, Doctor, but…”
“If you know how to pilot the Walker, then let’s go. There’s no time to waste. Every minute we wait represents valuable data we’re losing.”
Her mouth felt like cardboard. The vision of the nightmare castle, glowing with alien life, rushed back to her mind. She wanted to refuse, but Hawkin was already issuing commands.
“You’ll both need to head east to the turbine. Alexander, can you bring up a map on the wall monitor?”
“Just a moment, sir.”
She looked to the Captain for help, but he only shook his head. His eyes said he sympathized, but there was nothing he could do.
* * *
“Follow the ridge moving east until you reach the turbine. It will take about 15 minutes.”
Amelia didn’t like Dr. Hawkin’s voice over the radio any more than she liked it in person. He always seemed on the verge of yelling at someone.
“Captain, you’ll set the pace.”
“Roger that. Amelia, just follow my lead.”
She could see the Captain, or rather the green Sea Walker he was piloting, moving ahead of her through a jet of bubbles that clouded Amelia’s view.
She kept a nervous eye on the battery level. It was currently hovering around 98% and appeared to be working just fine, but the thought of sitting in the dark at the bottom of the sea again had her on edge.
“What are we looking for?” Amelia tried her best to sound confident. It took every ounce of will she had not to betray the fact that she was terrified.
“There’s something wrong with the power generator, or perhaps the power cables themselves are damaged. You’ll need to investigate the area and report anything that seems out of place.”
“Can do,” replied the Captain. Amelia held the controls steady as she sped along behind the other Sea Walker. Her only goal at the moment was to finish the mission and get back to Sea Lab as soon as possible.
Despite her intense desire to finish the mission, though, she had to admit she was getting the hang of driving the Sea Walker. When the Captain steered around a jagged boulder that had long since broken away from the mountainous valley wall, Amelia deftly followed him. The onboard navigational computer showed that she was approaching the turbine’s generator.
“Stick together,” said the Captain. “We’ll circumnavigate the turbine and look for damage.”
“No,” said Hawkin. “I want you to split up. You’ll find the problem faster that way.”
“Sir, it’s too dangerous,” insisted the Captain.
“That’s an order.”
Even over the commlink Amelia could hear the Captain grit his teeth.
“Yes sir,” he said. “Amelia, you take the north side and I’ll move south.”
Amelia went to her map to discern which way was north. It was easy to get disoriented in the deep ocean.
“Amelia, do you copy?” It was Dr. Hawkin this time.
“I copy,” said Amelia. “Heading to the north side of the turbine now.”
She steered the Sea Walker away from the Captain and into the darkness. The lights mounted on the Walker only illuminated about six meters ahead of her. Beyond that she was reliant on the onboard navigation, and the lights distributed by Sea Lab. She could see them in the distance, running along the mountains, like faint stars. They served the same function as stars, anyway: helping those lost at sea find their way.
As she moved toward the turbine, the onboard navigation gave her a detailed topographical view of her current position. Simultaneously, she saw the glowing red line of the turbine come into view as she mounted a ridge in the sea floor.
The turbine was a black box trimmed in red light. A thick mass of cables protruded from the north face and ran toward the mountains. The cables themselves were mounted with small lights that flashed synchronously. To the south was a series of circular disks built along the sea bed.
She saw all this on the window inside the dome. It was too dark to actually see the turbine, but the computer overlaid its virtual image on the glass.
“You should have a visual on the turbine at this point,” croaked Dr. Hawkin. They were getting far enough away from Sea Lab that his voice cracked from the static. Part of her hoped to lose contact so that she wouldn’t have to hear him barking orders, but the other, more reasonable part of her was terrified of losing contact and being lost out here by herself for the second time that day.
The Sea Walker glided over the ocean floor, parts of which Amelia guessed were over 100 million years old. Not only was she one of the first humans to see this part of the Earth, but humanity itself was one of the only creatures who could reach these depths. Still, life had gotten to the ocean floor years ago. When it came to deep ocean living, humans were only now catching up with microbes.
Amelia reached the turbine’s power supply first. It was a thick bundle of dark cables about 2 meters across that ran to the mountains, and back to Sea Lab. The interface on the Walker notified her that her destination was near. The onboard navigation suggested she anchored the Walker.
“Do either of you have a visual on the turbine yet?”
“I just arrived at the north edge of the target,” said the Captain.
“What do you see?”
“Nothing unusual. There’s some discoloration on the surface of the alloy, but I doubt that’s your issue.”
“No. It couldn’t be something so surficial. Keep searching. What about you, Amelia?”
“I’ve reached the power cable and I’m following it back to the turbine.”
“Good. I’m watching your feed on my computer, but the image is fuzzy. Alexander, can you make this picture any clearer?”
“Sir, there’s some interference. My connection is quite poor.”
“Alexander.” Amelia could barely hear Dr. Hawkin through the static in the line.
“The lab’s signal is weak,” said the Captain. “It’s probably ‘cause they switched from the turbine to surface power. There’s always a lag as the fuel cells struggle to adjust.”
“But I can hear you just fine.”
“We’re using our own onboard power supplies. Unlike that other Sea Walker, the one you’re in now has a strong battery.”
The power cable ran under an outcrop shaped like three hunched-over giants. Amelia imagined they were turned to stone by some deep-sea creature. She was forced to find a way around the natural barrier. Using the slider panel on the interface, she pushed the Sea Walker around the stones. Behind it was the turbine.
A series of metal disks rose out of the sea bed. They looked like half-buried disks, as if the stone giants had been tossing them for sport, like the ancient Greeks. Only they were facing the wrong way. The row of silver discs stretching into the dark behind the light of her Sea Walker.
Steering the Walker as near as she could to the edge of the turbine, Amelia commanded the machine to scan for anomalies. Of course, she examined the surface features herself, but the sensors onboard the Walker were more likely to find a problem. She was limited by the abilities of the human eye in the depths of the ocean. The Walker was equipped with radar, infrared, and image recognition software that was accurate to the millimeter.
When Amelia initiated the search functions, the Walker went into anchor mode. It’s mechanical feet dug into the sea bed. Amelia felt the unit connect with the Earth. When the unit settled, the search function began rendering a 3D scan of the turbine, which was projected on the interior of the glass dome. With a wave of her finger, she moved the camera window so that she could focus on the 3D scan.
The Walker began to crawl over the sea floor, making scans of the southern face of the turbine. When the scan reached the water-intake manifold--shaped like a large butterfly with several holes in its wings--the Walker gave an alert. It had found something.
She zoomed in on the image and saw the problem. Something was blocking the intake vents, but the picture was too dark to make out any details.
“Captain, do you copy?”
“What is it Amelia?”
“I think I may have found the problem. Have you regained contact with Sea Lab?”
“Not yet. It’s taking longer than I thought to equalize the power. We should head back to base as soon as possible.”
“My Walker is running a scan of the turbine. I’ll head back once it finishes.”
“I’ll come to your position and then we can head home together.”
“Roger that.” Amelia wasn’t sure where she’d heard people say that phrase. It made her feel like she was in an old movie. Her and Emma used to love to watch the old sci-fi movies from before the crisis. Her favorite was Star Wars, but Emma wasn’t a fan. She preferred scary movies.
Her favorite was Alien.
While she waited on the Captain, Amelia tried to puzzle out what was in the vent. They were lined with heavy-duty mesh so it wasn’t likely that a rock or other hard object could get pulled into the intake. It was more likely something organic.
Commanding the Walker to rise, Amelia finally solved the riddle. A giant squid had wandered too close to the vents and been pulled into the jaws of the turbine. It was dead; its body deformed from the pressure of the vent. It looked like a balloon had been twisted and hastily rammed into the vent.
The squid looked like an alien to Amelia. Like something not of this world. She only recognized it because of its tentacles--which hung out of the vent like vines.
While she was studying the dead squid, the Captain had arrived at her position
“What is that?”
“It’s a dead squid,” she told him.
“Geez. That’s rotten luck. Doctor Hawkin isn’t going to like this.”
“I wonder what drew it to the turbine?”
“Squids are attracted to the electromatic pulse generated by the turbine,” explained the Captain. “They’re usually not found at this depth, however. In fact, I’ve never heard of one being this deep.”
As if waiting for his cue, the doctor regained the radio.
“Can you hear me now? Captain? Amelia?”
“I copy, Doctor,” said the Captain. “I believe we’ve located the source of the problem. With your permission, we’d like to head back to base.”
“Return immediately. That’s an order.”
* * *
“This is extremely disappointing,” said Doctor Hawkin.
They were in the data lab. Hawkin was pacing the length of the orange and white desk that the crew knew was his preferred work station. Most of the team leaders were already in the room. Amelia saw Alexander next to Doctor Yamamoto.
Their eyes went to the Captain as he entered the room.
Hawkin’s gaze went to him as well. His eyes flashed in anger.
“Now that we’re all here, we can begin.” His attention shifted to Doctor Yamamoto.
“How could you let this happen? You realize we’ll have to shut the whole facility down to clean the vent? And if the animal rights groups find out about this there will be hell to pay.”
He pointed to Doctor Greaten, a renowned seismologist known for his work on tsunamis. Amelia had been looking forward to speaking with the man since he’d first arrived at Sea Lab, but Greaten had lived up to his reclusive nature and she’d never gotten the chance.
“You’re on damage control, Greaten. Don’t let this get out.”
“Sir, I’m not sure that’s wise.” He pushed his oval-shaped glasses up on his nose. “Transparency might be the best policy.”
“I’m not interested in your opinion, Greaten. We’re this close to completion and I won’t have anything disrupt our work at this vital stage.”
Greaten withered like a flower in the summer heat. Amelia sympathized with him. She wasn’t sure she agreed with Hawkin’s desire to keep the squid a secret either, especially since she was the one who had found it in the first place.
Hawkin must have read her thoughts because he watched her intently. She could see the stress in his body language. His tie--usually kept neat--was hanging loose around his neck. His hair stood on end and he hadn’t shaved that day. The whiskers were already thick on his jaw.
When he said her name, a lump formed in the back of her throat. The butterflies erupted in her belly and she had to summon all her courage to face him.
“Since you’re the one who found the squid, the primary responsibility of its problematic nature should fall on you, don’t you think?”
She tried to swallow, but her mouth was too dry.
“I’m sorry, Charles. But I don’t know what you mean by that.”
His fist slammed down on the table, startling everyone in the room.
“It means you’d better damn well do what you’re told from now on, and keep your mouth shut about what you’ve seen down here.”
Amelia didn’t know what to say to that. The room grew deadly silent while Hawkin collected himself. He ran his fingers through his air in a weak attempt to comb it. He straightened his tie. His hands shook as he took a drink from the water bottle he’d almost knocked off the desk with his outburst.
“Well, you have your orders.” With that, he turned and stormed out of the room. Doctor Yamamoto followed him, chased by Greaten and the other team leaders. Everyone was in a hurry to escape the data lab.
“He’s getting worse,” said the Captain.
“What do you mean,” asked Amelia.
“The man has anger issues. He’s never learned to cope with his emotions.”
Alexander crossed the room, greeting Amelia and the Captain.
“Are you okay?” asked Alexander. “You’re still soaking wet.”
“We’re just fine, Alexander,” replied the Captain.
“When we lost communication, I feared the worst.”
The Captain laughed. He nodded to Amelia. “Me and her can take care of ourselves, and you in the process.”
“What are we gonna do about him?” asked Alexander, his voice was almost a whisper.
“I don’t know, but his temper scares me sometimes.”
At these words, Amelia’s thoughts went to Issac.
Co-written with Harold J. Petty