I'm BURIED AT SEA and have to warn you before I run out of air - Chap 2
A shocked moment of silence seemed like an aeon. Then Barclay’s brain comprehended the horror upon him. He screamed as the Seadevil shook its mouth savagely. Its jagged teeth ripped muscle and snapped bone, turning the water red. I expected Barclays hand to come off. Then wished it had, as the Seadevil shot away, dragging Barclay beneath. He flapped helplessly against the beast’s belly.
“His umbilical!” Stewart wailed, as Barclay’s hose flew off the rack at a dangerous rate.
“Has the sub got him?” Po shouted at the same time.
“Everyone except Barclay shut the fuck up unless spoken to. Barclay, do you read me?”
“Yes,” he roared defiantly. It was a miracle he was conscious. His bones and skin would have severed long ago but Neoprene and Kevlar is tough stuff.
“Go for your knife,” I insisted firmly. He didn’t answer but I saw recognition in his eyes. Then the strain as he dragged his leg up against the current. He let out a primal scream as he grasped the knife and plunged the blade into the Seadevil’s freakishly extended belly.
The Seadevil opened its jaws as Barclay unleashed a frenzied attack. But his wrist was still speared on its teeth. The creature was nature’s perfect killing machine. It couldn’t be merciful if it tried.
He thrust and cut, leaving a cloud of blood like an aeroplane exhaust. The Seadevil twisted and convulsed, trying to buck Barclay off, but his suit held to the jagged teeth. As his attack got wilder, so did the thrashing Seadevil. It gnashed its jaws and spiralled through the water, lashing Barclay from side to side.
“Come on then! Come on!” he panted, pulse racing, while he swung the knife at random and hacked the Seadevil’s lure off. The dismembered light fell away.
“Five meters!” Stewart shouted and I cursed myself for telling him to be quiet. I needed to know when Barclay was out of hose.
“Take the strain on the line, Stewart.”
“W-what?” he stuttered, while Barclay shrieked like a frenzied serial-killer and Po listened, his face as pale as the Seadevil’s eyes.
“Grab his hose,” I screamed, as the umbilical started to drag the bell, knocking Stewart to the floor. The Seadevil powered on, Barclay’s knife acting like a horsewhip.
“Hold the line, Stewart! Grab it now or – ” The twang cut me short. The umbilical’s weakest point, the control valve in the bell, broke. It disappearing into the moon-pool and Barclay was gone. Without the umbilical, he had no coms. With fifteen minutes of emergency air and light, I could mount a rescue. But he was out of hose-range, so we’d have to raise the bell and move the ship to reach him.
There wasn’t any way of telling how far that thing went before succumbing to Barclay’s blade. The only thing I could do was shut the well-pipe off. Just because a diver dies, doesn’t mean you don’t finish a job like this.
“I let him go …” Stewart whispered, verging on tears. “You told me to hold the line and I let him go.”
“The line had to give somewhere,” I said truthfully. But Stewart could have bought him another twenty meters of line-stretch. That could have been the margin that saved him, and Stewart knew it.
“What in holy hell just happened?” Po shouted.
“It doesn’t matter. Close the valve.”
“Tell me what’s going on or I’ll be right back in that bell, boy.”
I opened my mouth to answer, then my jaw dropped even further. I noticed something on the screen that could change everything.
“Boy?!” the little prick said again. But I was too busy staring at Barclay’s camera feed to answer. It showed the last frame recorded before his umbilical snapped. It was Barclay’s knife cutting through his wrist. The blade was nearly through.
“Stewart?” I shouted, jumping out of my seat. “What direction was Barclay’s umbilical being pulled when it snapped?”
“South of the bell,” he said hopefully. And there was hope. If Barclay cut himself free, this end of his umbilical can’t be far from the bell. Po could follow the hose towards Barclay.
“Po, the priority is shutting the valve. Then there’s a rescue attempt and it has to be quick.”
“I ain’t movin’ nowhere until-”
“It was a Seadevil. Biggest fucking angler I ever saw. But it’s dead or dying, so move your ass, or everyone will know you were too chicken-shit to save Barclay.”
“An angler?” he questioned, the threat of shame moving his feet.
“Just keep going. You’re one-minute away.”
“They don’t attack humans,” he said, picking up the pace.
“Just do the job,” I ordered, pondering the same thing. But we know the surface of the moon better than we know the seabed. New is normal down there.
Po reached the shut-off valve but couldn’t budge it.
“Po, do you see the metal seal where the valve enters the pipeline?”
“If you warm the surrounding metal, the seal should expand enough to loosen the valve.”
“You want me to weld a live fuckin’ pipe?” he snarled.
“It’s near freezing down there. All you have to do is warm that metal and it’ll give. Just give it a gentle touch, Po. You can handle that, can’t you?”
“Well hell, he said eventually. “Ask any girl in my high-school, and she’ll tell you. I got magic fingers.” He took the hyperbaric weld kit off his back. It was a super-charged battery strapped to a canister of hydrogen. At the end of a straight welding stick, an electrode would apply direct current to metal, superheating it. But highly-flammable hydrogen bubbles have to be blasted around the electrode to simulate a dry-weld.
My son thought they were magic wands when I showed him one. I smiled at the memory. When he was young enough to be in awe of what I did rather than resent it. But I shut thoughts of my family out. Something I do all too easily.
Po moved the crackling electrode around the base of the valve. This was one job I couldn’t rush him on. But he stayed cool and got it done. With the metal warm, the valve closed easily. I didn’t have to worry about a spill anymore. Or so I thought.
I ordered Po to search South-West of the bell and ground my teeth with every agonising step. With five minutes gone, I figured Barclay had ten left.
Stewart wouldn’t stop asking for updates, desperate for Barclay to be found. And for a moment, it seemed like Stewart might get his reprieve.
“I see it,” Po said triumphantly.
“Follow the hose out, quick as you can, and you’ll be a hero before the day’s out.”
“Affirmative,” he said, bravado overcoming fear. He bounded along the hose, pulse high but steady.
“You’re running out of hose,” Stewart warned.
“It’s dragging like a son-of-a-bitch,’ he agreed. “But I see something.” Po covered his light with his hand. The darkness allowed me to see it too. There was a light up ahead.
“Okay, you got him,” I said. “Just hold there and use his hose to drag him to you.”
“Affirmative,” he said, picking Barclay’s umbilical up. Dive-suits were set for neutral buoyancy, so despite Barclay’s ample weight, Po should have been able to drag him back. And yet, no matter how hard he pulled, the light stayed put.
“Okay, Po. You don’t have to do this. But if his line is snagged, the only way to reach him is to stretch your hose,” I said. “Stewart will take the strain to protect your link to the bell. You should have twenty meters of stretch before the hose-seal at your end gives way. But don’t let what I said earlier come into this. No one could blame you for heading back. So tell me for sure. Are you up for this?”
“Does Pinocchio have a wooden dick?” he shot back. I smiled, as Po dug his feet into the sand and pulled himself along Barclay’s hose. The kid was growing on me. Even Stewart was doing his job, taking strain in the bell. But my unease grew with every step.
“It won’t stretch much longer,” I said, my voice as tense as Po’s hose.
“Just a little more,” he insisted.
“It’s slipping,” Stewart shouted, wet gloves unable to hold the strain.
“Wrap it round your wrist!” I said. “Po, that’s enough now. If the hose snaps we could lose you.”
“But I see him!” he shouted. I studied the screen and sure enough, through the stirred-up silt, there was yellow wreckage. Amongst it, his light obscured by twisted metal, Barclay lay face down.
“Okay. But if you’re hose snaps, don’t try to retrieve him. You’ll only have enough energy to get yourself back when the cold hits.”
“Okay,” he croaked. And I was proud of Barclay’s little lad as he lifted the still body out of the wreckage. He stood Barclay on the sand and his eyes flickered open. He was semi-conscious, helmet flooded, but mouth clamped on emergency air.
“I got him, boy,” Po said, and I let him have that.
“You sure have, my man. Now bring him home,” I replied, but they were already drifting back towards the bell. For ten meters or so, the tension on the line pulled Po backwards and dragged Barclay, too. But as the tension slackened, something was wrong. Barclay’s eyes became wide and urgent. He spat his regulator and shouted into the water, his voice lost but fear crystal clear.
Then I saw it. In the reflection of Barclay’s helmet. The Seadevil loomed into view, no light to warn of its approach. Barclay’s hand was still stuck in its teeth and Po was walking backwards, dragging Barclay towards its jaws. Barclay tried to fight Po off but he was too weak with hyperthermia. And for a second, I just watched. The hand of fear smothering my mouth. Until I blurted, “Your welder!”
“What?” Po demanded, the jaws widening behind him.
“Make it hot!” I screamed.
Po dropped Barclay to fumble for the weld-kit. He got hold of it and turned. But when he saw the Seadevil, the weld-kit slipped from his hands. He bent over and reached for it, like the condemned bending over for the guillotine. The Seadevil lunged and crunched its spikey jaws onto Po’s head. Teeth splintered on his helmet, the only part of his suit strong enough to resist being punctured. His headlight illuminated the inside of the creature’s mouth, a cavern of grotesque flesh. Teeth scraped on glass an inch from Po’s terrified eyes. Then its jaws opened again, to lunge forward, sure to slice through his suit. But just before Po’s decapitation …
The electrode erupted into the Seadevil’s gullet, lighting its insides with blinding blue light. Its mouth froze open, electricity crackling through its body. Po fell out of its jaws, and I saw Barclay with the weld-stick plunged into the Seadevil’s belly. There was a look of gruff satisfaction as he withdrew the electrode. Then, with the Seadevil drifting into darkness, he shut the weld-kit off. The safety procedure was drilled into him. The man was a pro. Once the torch was cold, he clenched the emergency air again. But I could see the strain on his face as he neared the end of his supply and slowly keeled over.
The Seadevil’s teeth had taken a heavy toll on Po’s helmet, gouging the visor and damaging his headlight. Just as he got to his feet, the torch flickered and died.
“Oh Jesus Christ. Oh sweet Jesus please,” Po stuttered, his lips hardly able to form the words.
“Is Barclay dead?” Stewart asked.
“He might make it. Po, get him back to the bell,” I ordered, hoping to break him out of his panic. But his pulse was still rising at 130bpm. “Po,” I insisted. “You still have Barclay’s headlight. Pick him up and carry him back before its battery goes.”
“His light,” Po said. “I can use his light.”
“That’s right,” I reassured him. “That fucking thing’s dead. Bring Barclay home.” Po walked towards Barclay. Rolled him onto his back. Barclay’s eyes still flickered with the suggestion of life. Then I heard the drill.
“What are you doing, Po?”
“His light. I need his light,” he gasped, pulse hitting 140.
“What’s he doing?” Stewart asked, but I couldn’t bring myself to say it out loud.
“Just pick him up, Po,” I insisted. But Po was too far gone.
“I need the light. He’s too heavy. I just need the light,” Po stammered, as he detached Barclay’s head-torch and shone it ahead.
“Don’t you leave him in the dark, God damn you … Don’t you leave him in the fucking dark to die alone!” Stewart screamed, hammering the side of the bell.
“Stewart, listen to me,” I said, as he clasped his face in frustration, red-hot tears dripping down his cheeks.
“Yes,” he whispered hoarsely.
“You have a diver returning to the bell. Take up the slack of his hose, you hear?”
“Yes,” Stewart confirmed coldly. He started pulling in Po’s hose and looping the slack onto the rack. I know how he felt, because I felt it too. The rock in my stomach. A ball of anger and grief weighing me down. But I had a diver with a pulse-rate so high I’d be lucky to get him back alone. Then a voice I’d forgotten about spoke.
“Luther!” said Arvid over coms. “I need an update.”
“We’ve shut the well-pipe off. It will hold for now. Call a team in to cap it ASAP,” I replied, shutting seabed coms off so me and Arvid could speak privately.
“Cap it. Before it blows,” I insisted. “And Arvid … I lost a diver.”
“Shit, Luther. One of the kids?”
“Shit,” he repeated, and gave Barclay a moment’s silence.
“I have to get my divers back into SAT.”
“Sure, Luther. But one more thing.”
“The manifold’s transponder. We’ve picked it up.”
“About six miles off the port-side. But … It’s getting closer.”
“And what does that mean?”
“I was hoping you could tell me.”
“The signal is weak. Distorted. But the last contact was deeper than the first.”
“At least thirty knots.”
“At that speed my divers could find out what it is in twelve minutes. But I’d rather they didn’t.” I cut him off and checked on Po’s progress. “Half way there,” I encouraged.
“I hear singing,” he whispered vaguely. And there was something. A playful clicking melody, and I remembered the dolphin pod I saw from the chopper.
“Just the sweet singing of dolphins overhead.”
“They’re coming to see me,” Po said, sounding strangely calm.
“Stewart, turn his nitrogen down,” I ordered, concerned nitrogen narcosis was causing his tranquillity. Saturation divers breath an adjustable mix of oxygen, nitrogen and helium, the latter to keep nitrogen levels low. “Just keep moving, Po.”
“But I hear ‘em. Real close,” Po slurred. Narcosis was taking hold.
“Turn than nitrogen down, Stewart!”
“It’s shut-off. All he’s getting is oxygen and extra helium,” Stewart said, knowing extra oxygen would also be dangerous for a racing heart-rate.
“I’ve always wanted to swim with dolphins,” Po said, in a voice high with helium. Then he stopped and shone the light above him.
“Just keep moving!”
“But they’re coming.”
“Po, they are not coming. The only dolphins recorded that deep had navy-bombs strapped to their back.”
“Well looks like we got ourselves a record breaker,” he said breathlessly. And the dolphin’s playful clicks were loud now. Buzzing with an inquisitiveness you could almost understand. And sure enough, right above Stewart, a smiling face came into view. It cocked its head, like a puppy waiting for a ball to be thrown, and floated down to Stewart’s side.
“You wanna help me, don’t you, boy?” Po said, taking hold of its fin. I considered ordering him to stop, but there are incidences of dolphins helping people in trouble. And sure enough, soon as Po took hold, the dolphin swam for the bell.
“Son-of-a-bitch,” I said in wonder.
“Is it helping him?” Stewart asked, as the hose went slack so fast he couldn’t retrieve it quick enough.
“I do believe it is,” I confirmed, as Po laughed deliriously. For a moment, all the horror was gone and Po whooped his way home.
“Wait!” shouted Stewart. “His hose!”
The slack had stopped and the hose was being sucked out of the bell. I cursed my ineptitude. I should have noticed Po’s depth reading was changing.
“Let go, Po!” I screamed. But his whooping continued, mixed with the joyous clicks of the dolphin. A blissful sound that made its actions even more terrifying. “It’s taking you up, Po! It’s taking you up!”
“What!?” he shouted back.
“Look at your suit!” I screamed, seeing that his arms were starting to expand. Even in his state, he couldn’t miss it. Nor the pain that started searing through his ears, eyes and joints. Every sinew in his body was separating. The dolphin had taken him eighty meters up before he let go. The torch waved erratically as he clawed at his body, screaming in agony.
“Calm down. You’re descending. The pain should ease and divers have survived worse.” My words reassured him a little. Until a grey shape shot past. Then another, each dolphin singing in ever-more excited tones. Their haunting laughter echoed in every direction. But the chatter was also sonar that told the dolphins exactly where Po was. It would get louder as one dived towards him and turned at the last moment. They were toying with him. Until one hit, its bottle-nose hammering into Po’s thigh. The impact sent his body spinning into the dark, like an untethered astronaut. Another dolphin hit his shoulder and sent him pinwheeling in the other direction.
“Drag him in, Stewart!” I shouted, but he was already fighting the hose like a cowboy with an untamed stallion.
“Your knife, Po!” I yelled. And sure enough, he flourished it. Until a dolphin cannoned into his arm and the knife spun into the dark. Then, as his last weapon disappeared, the clicks fell silent.
“Please, Stewart,” Po pleaded. “I don’t wanna die.”
“You’re not going to die,” Stewart shouted, pulling the hose with all his might. The expanded air in Po’s suit made it slow going, like tugging on a giant helium balloon. But he was descending. Until his torch lit the most terrifying sight I’d ever seen. Smiling, silent faces. A circle of them, waiting for him. Then soft, sweet purring as the dolphins swam underneath Po and thrust him upwards.
Po’s blood-spluttering scream was terrible. But the happy chatter of teamwork so much worse. The dolphins were surging upwards, tossing his inflated suit between them like a beachball at Sea World.
Stewart couldn’t hold the hose. It was ripped from his hands. He tried to get hold again but all the slack had gone. There was only stretch left in the hose now.
All I could do was watch. Po had risen two-hundred meters. Blood streamed from his eyes and ears. Lung tissue erupted from his mouth.
“Cut the hose, Stewart,” I said numbly. “Or they could tip the bell.”
“No!” Stewart shouted back. But Po’s hose was stretched beyond the point of return.
His pulse hit 200bpm before his heart exploded. Eyeballs popped like champagne corks and blood spattered on the inside of his helmet. His lungs were so full of expanding air, the gurgling scream continued long after death. And when it finally ended, the last thing I heard was giggling dolphins as they snapped his hose and took their toy to the surface.
“Don’t pull his hose in,” I said. “Just cut it and seal the moon-pool.”
Stewart said nothing, his face a mass of seething conflict. He went to the umbilical racks. But rather than sever Po’s hose, he started unreeling the third and unused umbilical. The one attached to his suit.
“Stewart,” I said firmly. “Close the hatch.”
Stewart continued to wind his umbilical out into the moon-pool. I was about shout but he spoke in a voice so calm it stopped me.
“There was a diver once. He was on a North Sea job when his vessel’s dynamic positioning system failed. The storm up top dragged the boat and his bell away. His hose got caught and snapped,” he recited, still feeding his hose out. “He was on his own with fifteen minutes of air and no heat. But they couldn’t recover him for forty minutes … and you know what?”
“He was still alive,” I said.
“You knew him?”
“The freezing water lowered his heart rate. But it was a freak occurrence.”
“Well … if there was ever a freak, it’s Barclay.”
“Thing is, Stewart. The diver you’re talking about might have got lucky. But he died a month later.”
“So I heard.”
“You know how?”
“Not exactly,” he said while putting his helmet on.
“He disobeyed his dive supervisor. A crane up top dropped a girder that cut his partner’s hose. And like you, he refused to leave someone out there. Thing is, the girder damaged a pipeline. When he got to his friend, a section of the pipe gave way. Just a hole as big as your fist. But it was an empty pipeline. So that little hole was trying to suck a million cubic-feet of water in all at once. And your hero went with it. Through that tiny hole. All they recovered were bone fragments when they flushed the pipe.”
Stewart paused thoughtfully, on the edge of the moonpool, his feet dangling in the water. I thought I’d scared some sense into him.
“Thank you for telling me that,” he said, fastening the last clasp of his helmet. “I’d always wondered why his casket was so light.”
Then it hit me. His last name and sandy-blond hair. This was Ben Salter’s boy. Everyone just called him Salty, so the family name didn’t click before.
“Shit, Stewart. I knew your father. And he wouldn’t want you to do this.”
“You’re right. He wouldn’t want me to do this. But it is what he’d do.” Stewart grabbed the last tool in the bell. A circular saw with a power-cord as long as an umbilical. Then with impressive strength, he ripped the safety guard off, exposing a diamond edged wheel, and dropped into the water.