This week's Terraform dispatch was filed by Andrew David Thaler, a deep-sea ecologist who studies population connectivity at hydrothermal vents in the western Pacific, builds underwater robots, and occasionally writes science fiction. Like this:
"These fucking elbows creep me out." I'm at 65 meters, waiting for surface comms.
"Copy that, Nails." Sage is running ops. "They doing anything interesting?"
"Negative, just watching." Elbows, Bigfin Squid if you're an egghead. Floating mid-water, huge, black eyes, arms 20 meters long. Big. They've got these joints in their tentacles that take a 90 degree dive into the abyss. All they ever do is watch.
They follow me down, close enough to grab me.
I'm riding the cable, waiting for Sage to switch my gasses.
"Okay Nails, you're just about ready to purge your tanks. I've got 14 percent Tricklemix coming down the tether." At least she's all business today. "How's your diet been?" Fuck.
"Yeah, that horse slop you shovel into your mouth. When you going to join the rest of us in the 22nd century?"
"What, that crab-piss you call food? Never."
"Those old rations aren't going to hold out forever. Plus they're terrible for you. You're good to purge."
"Copy." I suck in one last breath and hit the release. The air rushes out of my suit. The elbows float, motionless.
My suit presses up against me. There's nothing to keep it inflated. I panic. Dammit, Sage, what the fuck did you forget this time? I hear the hiss of air pouring in through the hose. There's a tingling sensation in my sinuses. Tricklemix.
"Alright, Nails, you're clear to descend. Rock is 19 meters below and to the right."
I descend. The elbows follow. At 10 meters to the rock, the line changes from wire to chain. Heavy chain. 4-inch links. Serious shit for a serious rig.
Five meters. I can see the Rock. Not much to it, just a small shelf and a nasty spire. I touch down just below Hall's Ledge and examine the anchor. Well made, like the chain. Forty tons of steel and concrete bolt this wreck to the Rock. They called Rockall it when it was exposed. The anchor looks good. Nothing changed since the last time. More elbows.
What a vision. Take the biggest oil rig in the world, float it out to the most isolated rock on the planet. Declare the whole thing a new nation, some sort of fucking anarcho-eco-collective. Real grade-A seasteading bullshit. Then the storms came. The port pylon smashed right into this spire. Rig took a 32 degree heel before they got her stable. Bolted the fucker down, fired the emergency ballast, prayed to whatever commie god that the whole thing didn't float away.
That was 100 years ago. We've been living on this barely-floating grease trap for a century. And what do we have to show for it? Fuck all.
Fuckall. The perfect name. Fuckall is the worst place on Earth, except for everywhere else.
"Hey Nails, you surfacing anytime this week?" I must've drifted off. Can't do that. I hit the beeper. Now where's that cable? Time to go.
"Glad to have you back. Your little looksee cost you R and R. You've got a double deco-stop."
I ascend. At the 10 meter mark I clip the line and dump my buoyancy. I'll let the wire-climber carry me up. I lean back and watch the elbows. They look happy.
"Okay Nails, you're at 65. Dump the Tricklemix." I hit the button. Then the beeper.
"I said dump the Tricklemix!" I look down as I shoot towards the surface. Shit! I'm positive. I grab the release. Good thing I'm on the wire-climber, or I'd be at the surface by now. Okay, gas purge. Line in, line out, dump valve, powerhead, auxiliary power, secondary hoses, there. I hit the gas purge. I hear the pleasant hiss of Tricklemix leaving my suit. I relax.
I grab my mask. There's no airflow. Shit. I never hit the beeper. I bang on the damn thing, tell Sage to get the air moving. I feel a familiar breeze.
I'm on the beach, enjoying the sunshine.
"What the fuck are you doing down there?"
Sage is not allowed on my beach. Yet there she is, strolling along the sand, a drink in one hand, a clipboard in the other. I don't think I've ever seen her in a bikini. Come to think of it, I've never been to a beach, either. Everything snaps back into focus. I look down at my chronometer. I've been out a solid 20 minutes.
"I guess I got a bit loopy. You mix my gases right?"
"Your gases were perfect. You're getting old. And you eat shit. You're lucky I didn't take a dump while you dropped your weights like it was your first dive."
"Am I clear?"
"Yeah, you're fine. Take it slow, okay. I don't want to see you in the moon pool before dawn."
"I'd rather you didn't see me at all. When's your shift up?"
"Fuck you, Nails."
I break the surface. Sage isn't there.
"That was quite the dive, Mr. McNaill." Shit. The only person on this rig worse than Sage. The Overseer of Safety and Health.
"It got a bit dicey for a blink, but I kept it together."
"If you consider spending a whole dive narked off your ass ' keeping it together'"
"Hey now, Osh, I didn't get into any trouble until I got to the Rock. I think my gases were off."
"We tested them while you were coming up. The gases were perfect."
"Well, fine. I guess I narked out on the ascent. It happens."
"The ascent is not our concern, McNaill. Our concern is the hallucinations."
"McNaill, do you know what Bigfin Squid look like on a SONAR profile?"
He hands me a printout from the SONAR swath. There's me, floating upside-down. Must've been when I dropped my ballast. Rockall just below. Even the faint outline of the cable is visible. That's it.
"I don't get it. There must've been thirty of them, following me the whole time."
"Yes, from the moment you hit the water. I reviewed the comms log. We went back through the entire dive profile. Do you know what we found?"
"Precisely, McNaill. Fuck all. Consider yourself on regenerative leave for the remainder of the term."
Sage was waiting for me in my stateroom.
"Hung around after shift to get some gloating in?"
"Do you ever get tired of being a piece of shit, Nails?"
"You could have said something. Think it's funny to let me ramble on about invisible fish?"
"First off, they're not fish, their invertebrates. And second, no. I don't need you aborting the dive because you've got imaginary friends. The Divelog says the senior diver checks the mooring every Thursday, so the senior diver checks the mooring every Thursday. That's you, Nails. Nothing else matters if Fuckall breaks free."
She's right about that. The first team of roughnecks, the ones who set the anchor, were hardcore old timers from the glory days of offshore drilling. They knew what they were doing. Us, we've never been off this rig. The only thing we know is the mooring, the anchor, and the Rock. But they left us some damn fine instructions. Good enough that we could keep this heap floating longer than anyone expected.
"Well, you're in luck. I'm not the senior diver. Not for the rest of the term. Osh pulled me. I think I'll take a nice little vacation. Maybe curl up with an old book on the sundeck, drink something strong, and watch the kittiwakes fly east."
"Nails, you're a moron. The term ends in six days. You're back in the water just in time for the next anchor survey."
"Well then, if you need me, I'll be on the rec deck getting shitfaced for the next 132 hours."
"Do us all a favor, Nails, if you fall overboard again, take your beacon."
I lead Sage out of my stateroom and slam the door. Fuckall rolls. It's a long, low, empty roll. A wave that never breaks.
"The usual, Cookie." The mess is deserted. Everyone's still on work detail, scraping paint and grinding rust, keeping Fuckall together for one more shift.
"Want to pace yourself this time, Mac?" I hate to see a diver's full allotment go right back into the sea."
"Your concern is noted and appreciated. But I've got 144 hours of leave and I plan on using it." Cookie is the one man on this pile whose concern is honest-to-god genuine. Everyone else just wants to make sure I make the next dive.
"You know I can't distribute more than a day's units at a time. Captain's orders. And I definitely didn't hear her say ' except Nails'. I'd remember that."
"So it's going to be like that, is it?"
"It is. I suppose I could release one day's units seven times, but I'd have to be particularly distracted to make a mistake like that."
"What kind of distracted?"
"The kind that comes with three square solid meals. ."
"You want a day's worth of my M-Rations?"
"I want a day's worth of M-Rations for every day's worth of booze you want me to forget I issued you."
"Well fuck, Cookie, what am I supposed to eat next week?"
"I'll have a fresh vat of green horseshit waiting for you. Might even do you some good."
Here's the thing about crude whiskey: It's worse than the worst shit you've ever drunk, including the previous sip of crude whiskey. The rig's got a couple big tanks for storing black gold. But we don't drill, we just float. So some egghead figured out how to turn one of the tanks into a still, which would be the best thing in the world except the tank's been sucking crude since the day it was laid, so what we get is a high proof slurry with a firm bouquet of bunker. Usually, even bad booze gets better the drunker you are, but not crude whiskey.
I drink it all and spend my leave spinning.
This shit is going to get me killed. Just like it did the last senior diver. The old bastard didn't even go out swimming. No, he cracked up and paid a visit to the business end of a drill press. Face up. Osh said it wasn't even suicide. I've got the debriefing notes somewhere. Here:
"Senior diver filed numerous complaints regarding his gas mixture. Attempt to relieve pressure, via trepanning, failed."
I grab my thermals and go.
Sage and Osh slide the helmet over my head, pull the rusty toggles through the old grommets and lock it in place. The gas starts pumping. Warm, comforting gas. Hot from the compressor. My surface mix. Perfect for calming down and sobering up. My thermals itch like hell. Did I even wash them after the last dive? I take a deep breath. No.
The moon pool opens. I feel the chilling cold of the North Atlantic through my heavy rubber suit. I have full buoyancy. I float chest deep in the water. Osh unhooks the winch cable, I'm free to sink.
With water between me and the surface, my comms kick in.
"We need you to hang here, Nails, for a few minutes while we get the Tricklemix compressor online."
"You put me in the water before you had the gas moving?"
"Yeah, well, we wanted you out of the ops room as soon as possible. Your Overseer wants to monitor you for mental acuity before you go any further."
"Well, fuck that guy. Is that acuit enough for you?"
"Have any company down there?" Sage's voice fills my head.
I spin slowly, shining my helmet light through the hazy seawater. It catches the glint of a large, black eye. Shit.
"You got anything on the SONAR?"
"Why don't you tell us what you see first, Nails," Osh says. Might as well tell them the truth. The fuck are they going to do? The Divelog says dive, so that's what we do.
"There's one big elbow hanging out at 8 o'clock, about 30 meters away."
"That's it? Why don't you tell me if it's fucking there or not?"
Silence. I breathe.
Sage comes back on the comms.
"You're clear to keep going. I'll let you know when you hit Tricklemix depth."
Another elbow approaches. Fuck it. It takes me a solid hour to sink down.
"Alright, I'm at depth. Gas me up."
My lungs ache as the last gasp of air is flushed from the suit. The infinite deep presses in on all sides. I hit the beeper and am greeted by the warm rush of Tricklemix pouring into my suit. It tastes salty, tangy, sweet. The dense gas fills my lungs. Comforting.