People once said forty days and nights of rain was enough to flood the whole world, and today this makes us smile, because it’s been raining for forty years.
In the equipment bay I feed myself into a survival suit with the practice of many years. Brilliant orange, with breathing gear, flotation system, radio locator beacon, light.
The name Lytton, K is stenciled at the breast – my suit, made for me, Kira Lytton, in the workshops below. The suit will keep me alive for 24 hours if I’m ever unlucky enough to be separated from this metal island on which we journey.
Drift Station Pelagus was built in the last generation before Earth became uninhabitable. She was conceived as a self-contained community of scientists with direct access to the planetary ecosystem at the most intimate level, while in permanent contact with the cities out at L5. She would drift forever on the oceanic gyre, wander the world without need of propulsion, send back data without pause, so that perhaps one day the supercomputers up there in space would understand the mechanism of the global balances well enough to repair them.
This was the plan, but plans don’t always work out. Oh, we’re wandering the world, we’re sending the data, but we were never supposed to be trapped here – isolated, a community cut off from the human race. Our third native generation will be born in the next few years, and the scientists and engineers who crewed this station when it was launched are now…well, old.
I’ve been coming up here to the flightdeck since I was ten years old. We all do, it’s a rule of the community – every day a small group of us go up top to see the world outside, to experience it; once a month for any individual. It terrified me then and it terrifies me now, but I understand the necessity and make myself do it. This is the planet Earth in AD 2132, it is what our ancestors made of it, and we suffer the curse of their attitude.
The gentle motion of the vast platform is something we’re born to; our elders say if we ever leave Pelagus we’ll have severe disorientation until we adapt to a world that’s not moving. For though the platform weighs 390,000 long tons, the forces of the ocean cannot be resisted; the great swells of this endless storm exert terrible stresses upon the tremendous pylon that supports the habitation dome sixty meters above sea level.
I go up from the standby lounge with Kirby, one of the pilots who hasn’t flown his aircraft in twenty years: the weather was too bad for too long, and now the aircraft are unserviceable. With us go Kinsela, a biologist, and Delia, a kid my own age who has become a meteorologist. We all follow in the paths of our elders, there’s no option. Only in our spare time can we write or draw. The station that is our life consumes all else.
In the elevator we double check our survival suits with their compact oxygen rebreathers. The air out there is now too poor in oxygen, too rich in carbon dioxide, to support human life for more than a few minutes. Forests are recovering all over the southern hemisphere at tremendous rate, and eventually they’ll correct the gas balance – but not without our help. The ocean, which was responsible for the majority of the process, has been largely dead for half a century.
When I was younger I complained bitterly that I had no wish to go outside, ever. But we grow up quick here, we understand our realities. And nothing brings home to you how broken the world is better than stepping out of the hanger onto the old landing pad area.
We’ve all done it many times; going through the ritual of the safety tethers, checking each other’s rebreathers, harnesses and seals, is second nature. When we’ve all confirmed we’re ready, Kirby thumps a big green contact on a wall panel in the small exit lock alongside the hanger where the three helijets wait forlornly for missions that will never come, and we take hold of the safety rail, waiting for it….
The wind comes around the door and hits us with the worrying hands of a demon, slapping and tugging at our suits. When the door has gone back, the wan, blue-gray daylight seems infernal compared to the 5000˚K artificial light we’re used to, and we squint into the gloom as we brave the gale. The ocean is a thunderous breathing below us. I remember, the first time I came out here I thought some monster was below, wrapped around the station, roaring ceaselessly.
We step out into the fury of the Southern Ocean and it seems all sanity is left behind. The wind would lift us from our feet if it could, and we stagger along the safety rail with both hands on the metal. The suits and gloves are thick and tough but I know we’ll feel the cold soon all the same. What irony; warming created the imbalance whose lower end we now endure!
Ten meters from the door we cling tight to the rail at the edge of the landing pad and look upon the ocean. We lift our eyes to it slowly, not because we don’t know what it’s like, but because we fear to see it without armor-glass between us and it. Rain squalls march across the heaving black sea like the tentacles of some hidden kraken, while lightning makes purple flickers along the horizon and whitecaps torn from the waves are racing sheets of foam.
Those waves are the great rollers of the Circumpolar Convergence – the West Wind Drift of old – and they’re mountainous. Some reach halfway to the underside of the platform.
To look on this spectacle with the eyes of a child was the most frightening thing I ever did. I was in shock and denial for days. The human mind has a way of handling terrible things, however, and I got over it. The simple fact I understood what a storm is and had already watched the sky from the impersonal peace of the protected interior helped.
Some found it exhilarating, and I tried to be like them. Each time I made myself go that bit further. Eventually I reached the outer edge of the landing pad, where it overhangs the periphery of the hundred meter hemisphere of the station’s upper arc, and could look down at the churning ocean.
Fear is an old companion: horrified nightmares about the black deeps beneath us, about the storm one day overcoming the technical mastery of the station and sucking us down into cold oblivion. This is what it is to be born and live every day adrift on the face of the vortex.
I’ve come to look upon this monthly meeting with reality as the most valuable thing we do. It’s like the Martian settlers climbing out of their underground cities to look at the pink sky and the desolation, to remind themselves of where they really are, beyond the bubble of Earth they took with them. This station is our bubble of an Earth that’s gone, and we are as much wanderers as any who travel the planets.
I tell myself this as I look down at the terrifying tract of water, whose wave crests march out of the west, whose deep mass-flow propels the station; and I look up through the rain that suddenly pelts across my suit and faceplate. This is daytime, and beyond those flying thunderheads is a blue sky I’ve never seen and the sun that’s roasting this planet alive.
But, just maybe, today, we’ll break our record. That’s what I say, and as the mathematician who worked out where we’ve been wrong before, it’s my call to make.
We’ll escape from the Convergence, and our sun will shine for us again.
The storm has been blowing since my father was a kid. The entire southern hemisphere is affected – an expansion of the circumpolar gyre, which developed into an endlessly regenerating system of storms in all three oceans. Our theorists have suggested it’s the result of the wholesale melting of Antarctica’s icecap: the appearance of a thick lens of fresh water overlying the ocean as far north as 45˚ south, mimicking the conditions of the early Earth when the oceans were just forming.
I saw the math for this proposal when I was younger and I study it every day. Apparently, there was a time before knowledge implantation. A hundred years ago people had to learn to understand maths one concept at a time – no wonder so many of them couldn’t do it. Instead of symbols I see relationships; the symbols are merely a somewhat clumsy way of expressing them.
These are the truths of life. I let my mind blank as I lean against a tiled wall in the crew showers, enjoying the hot spray that soaks the cold from my body. The others are done already, now I have the bay to myself, and it seems I take longer to pull myself together than usual. I should be excited: today is the day we attempt the Grand Maneuver – completing a month-long tacking operation to put us into the root stream of the Humboldt Current. It will carry us north along the coast of South America, and away from the Convergence at last. But we’ve tried before, been disappointed, and this endless orbit of the southern continent has been our reality for so long, I can’t quite imagine escaping from it.
Soon I shut off the water, hear it gurgle away to the recycling tanks a deck below, and begin to towel in the warm, humid air. I am excited, I realize, more than I’ve let myself know, and there lies the churning fear in the pit of my stomach. Not childhood fears of the dark depths, but the entirely adult terror of being wrong for no reason I’ll ever understand. It’s the not understanding I’m afraid of, because our whole existence is a bid to understand.
I dress in my uniform jumpsuit with an economy of motion beyond my years, never imagining an eighteen-year-old should be any different. I talk like an encyclopedia, am absorbed in our task, and it’s only when my grandmother speaks of life before all this began that I feel how strange our world has become.
My grandmother is the commander of Pelagus Station. Doctor Virginia Lytton is 76 and has carried the weight of the world on her shoulders for the 112 crew she started with in 2090. Maybe good forethought saw the sex ratio of the crew more or less balanced – or just dumb luck, because when the storms erupted all over this planet, making physical contact with the space cities near-impossible, we became a close-knit community. A city adrift, and a microcosm of the human experience. When the Lagrangian stations declined to send shuttles into the thick, treacherous weather anymore, we knew we were on our own. It wasn’t long before a next generation began to appear.
My father, Doctor Roger Lytton, was born a few years into the mission and like all the others grew up at the knee of the scientists. I came along only after we became trapped in the Convergence. Before then, Pelagus had wandered the gyres of every ocean more than once, sometimes seeing the sun and blue skies through the endless gray, and the brown skies when great winds stripped the denatured soil from the continents and flung it at the sea.
I can imagine the shock, the day they knew we were trapped in the far southern latitudes…when the deep tug of the next current the station must enter was simply not there. The deep sails were trimmed but the expected shearing action was not encountered. From that day onward, any hope of an occasional visit from space was over.
I know what they did wrong. I know where the modeling failed, and today we’ll know if I’m as good as I think I am.
Oh, I’m so scared.
The bridge is the place I’m most at home. I step through the hatch and am greeted with the lazy hails of the duty watch. Toby Garrett is current Officer of the Watch and nominally has command. He monitors the uplink to Armstrong City, when we can get a signal at all. He has the engineering team under him, and the science crews liaise as needed.
The bridge is a wide control room at the apex of the dome, and armor-glass windows look out on the terrible seascape. Lights burn around the clock. Displays glow overhead and on consoles, and I stand before the master ocean plot. This is a digital screen the size of a wall, displaying a whole-Earth chart. The marker of our present position is as far north as we’ve seen in my lifetime. Seventeen days ago we raced close to the latitudes of New Zealand, and ached to see the Land of the Long White Cloud, hundreds of kilometers below our northern horizon.
“I thought I’d find you here,” comes my father’s voice, and I turn with a wan smile, taking his momentary hug. “They’ll all be coming up in time for the turn.”
“You’re confident?” I ask in a whisper.
“Aren’t you?” He rubs his whiskered chin, shrugs and says softly, “I know, I know. The one who comes up with it is always the last to be certain.”
I go to a console and pull up a display, my hands passing through the digital graphics in the air. The water masses surrounding the station appear in softly glowing colors.
“It’s the fresh water lens, it’s deeper in these latitudes than we ever imagined. There’s nothing else to explain the pressing away of the origins of the northward current. The water mass we need is under it, deflecting north before rising to feed the Humboldt Current. If we can snag it in the next hundred-fifty kilometers, we can make enough northing to avoid going aground on the coast of Chile, or being sucked southward again.”
My dad puts an arm around my shoulders and smiles that special smile just for me. “There’s plenty of trench under us on that stretch. Once we’re into the current there’s no way we’ll go aground.”
“If we do….”
“We’ll strand fast and the sea will batter this station to wreckage.” He speaks in a bare whisper, because we’ve been over this many times. Pelagus can’t afford to ever touch bottom; she was named for the free-swimming life of the old oceans, and is only viable when she’s riding before current and wind. To be driven onto a lee shore and held there is her death-knell, and ours. Without this station there’s no survival on the bleak and alien planet Earth has become. Could the space colonies reach us with a rescue attempt? Perhaps they’d try, but….
“It’s there, I know it,” I whisper, cancelling the display and bringing up the glowing sigils of the expressive math. “The salinity variable is the only one that makes sense. Temperature penetration to the deep water will take thousands of years, that can’t be behind it. We’d have to talk about change in the rotational period of the planet or a geographic barrier to flow, and we know neither can be correct, so…”
“Let it happen,” he whispers. “The entire science staff has signed off on your theory, we’ve been working toward it for two years.”
Two years of hard work based on my reasoning. I’ve watched the engineers battle the sea to modify the station’s drag system – she can sail before winds by unfurling sails below the dome, but she also sails on the currents by lowering ‘propulsion area’ into deeper waters. And there lies the difficulty.
The currents heading where we need to go are a good 300 meters deeper than they used to be. To get the ‘water sails’ down there, the hoists needed to be reworked to pay out a half-kilometer more cable. This doubles the odds of a cable snapping under load. If we lose the sails, it’ll take us two years to rebuild them, cannibalizing parts of the station, and all the time we’ll be at the mercy of the wandering patterns of the ocean.
This is why we became lost. The currents haven’t ceased to flow but they have moved. The sims couldn’t account for it. The team battled the problem for many years while we were locked into the Convergence and lost our ability to send data on the rest of the oceanic system. Scientists used to say the Southern Ocean was the heart of the world’s weather machine; in that much we’re in a good place to be useful, and the data bursts we’ve been able to get through to the colonies certainly helped.
But what about us?
I never imagined my epiphany would carry such a weight of anxiety. The numbers looked so perfect, so clean and logical when I first glimpsed them and innocently blurted them out to the scientists I work with. They saw the sense of them; we ran the sims again and this time found the current. We ran them a thousand times, adjusting for uncertainty, and in a statistically significant majority of cases, we caught the current and made it into the South Pacific. Then we ran sims on the engineering work needed, and again it looked good, though the uncertainties were wider.
Now the hoists, located at the bottom of the station core, among the cathedral-sized flotation tanks on which she rides, are about to pay out as much as 1200** **meters of cable at the end of which is a ten-tonne iron sinker and a mechanical butterfly, a device which will unfold, spread like wings and present a self-stabilizing sail to the current.
There’s nothing new in this. In ancient times mariners knew a counter-current flowed out through the Straits of Gibraltar, under the prevailing eastward set at the surface. Galleys would lower a sail weighted with stone deep beneath them to catch it, and be ‘blown’ out into the Atlantic. Pelagus was built to do the same, but the trick is in knowing where the currents are. The old fixed patterns have morphed with the chaos of the post-industrial environment, and we’re building new charts as we go. Perhaps they will never be finished.
The atmospheric conditions for radio communications are never very kind down here. Only the station’s high-power satellite dish, housed in a streamlined turret to protect it from the endless gales, can punch a signal through to the geostationary relay. We haven’t known a truly clean transmission in my lifetime. Signal degradation is a fact of life, but if we can make the turn – heading north along the line of the Peru-Chile Trench instead of yet again plunging through the terrible seas of Drake Passage, south of Cape Horn – we’ll find kinder air, and re-establish full signal load. Just to be able to talk to other human beings without husbanding bandwidth will seem like forbidden luxury.
15.00 hours comes around and you can hear a pin drop on the bridge. Grandmother is in the command seat she has occupied for 42 years. Her shock of silver hair is drawn back severely from a face etched with strain, but her eyes are piercing windows to a soul not yet ready to give up the fight.
There’ll be little enough to see, but we’ll feel it. We always feel it. A life in motion has tuned our middle ears to detect even the most subtle variations in the attitude of the station, and we all know what we’re hoping to sense. The duty staff is joined by the off-duty watches and everyone who can pack in. There are now 202 Pelagians, and the station is crowded; every one of them wants to share the moment if they can.
The global chart has been expanded to show our position relative to Cape Horn. We’re a thousand kilometers to the north, sailing down on the maze of islands lining the rugged southern coasts of Chile. We have no fear of grounding: the continental shelf of the western seaboard of South America is one of the narrowest in the world. We may actually see land. In the past we’ve used wind power alone to come within a hundred kilometers of this latitude, but the surface currents never relinquished their iron grip on the station, taking her inexorably back into the jaws of Drake Passage. This time…it’ll be different. I know it, I feel it. I will it.
The station’s calculated position, based on a realtime sonar scan of the deep ocean bed beneath us, coincides with the projected maneuver point. A green circle surrounds the marker on the chart. My grandmother inclines her head to me with a tight smile. “You may give the order, Kira.”
My voice sticks in my throat for a moment; the words take more effort to speak than anyone will ever know. I nod to the navigation officer and barely recognize my voice. “Deploy the sails,” I whisper.
We see the indicators light as the winches slam into motion. Hundreds of meters down in the cold, crushing blackness, cable begins to pay out, and we wait, watching the strain gauges as the tonnage of steel beneath us descends. With three hundred meters of line out we start to move into the unknown. Every one of us is waiting for the tremendous shock that will race through the station if the cable snaps, taking our sails to the bottom. The more cable out, the more likely it is to break.
In my mind’s eye I see the sinker falling away into the alien realm: a space as total as anything above us, a space now populated only by jellyfish, siphonophores, arachnids and crustaceans. A terrible place where humans have never been welcome, made doubly so, in our minds, by the alienation of the surface world also. I hardly dare breathe as the strain indicators move toward the red zone.
It would have been a simple matter to probe the depths for this current set in the early days of the mission, but all the ROVs were lost long before I was born, and 3D printing new ones consumed too many resources. I asked a dozen times, but there were always more pressing needs to keep body and soul together for a growing population. Thus we stand now and wait. Many hug tight in the moment’s tension.
I’m watching the tonnage indicator for the second the sinker passes out of the fresh water layer. When it enters salt water the greater density will reduce the downforce on the cable, and I’ll know my theory was correct. Well, it’ll support my theory – I’ll not believe it until we’re on a different course.
We’re all scientists and engineers here. When the figures on the glowing displays change, a groundswell of relief runs through the bridge. We always knew the salt water was down there, but exactly where was the golden key.
“Target depth,” the navigator whispers, and we see the hoist slow down gradually, finally locking off with 1020 meters of cable out. “Deploying the butterfly.”
On a dozen screens a graphic builds up to show the sequence of the sails unfurling. When the confirmation comes that they’re locked open, stabilizing vane fully extended, we hold our breaths. Five seconds. Ten. Fifteen.
Perhaps I’m the first to sense it, just by a second or so, but even 2˚ list is enough. The smile goes from face to face around the bridge as we each realize the station is tilting…angling in a way contrary to the press of the Convergence. This is the drag of the northward motion now filling the deep sails. The station is leaning to the south in response, and I nearly faint as the dashed gold line of our track on the big display deflects to the north-east.
A cheer like thunder breaks through the bridge. At once everyone is hugging and back-slapping, high-fiving, and it all grays out for me as my legs go weak. The next thing I know, my dad has caught me before I can collapse, and he’s rubbing my back with words of reassurance by my ear. Someone thrusts a seat under me and I draw a shaky breath, my eyes never leaving the course projection. Yes, we have changed course. The pilot officer is trimming the upper sails, which are controlled by roller gear below the dome, to assist the new heading. The station turns, stabilizes, wallows a little as the swells march by on a different angle, but we are definitely making headway across this infernal surface current.
Now, so long as the cable doesn’t part, we’re on our way.
Conditions are still far from good, but nothing will keep me from the landing pad. Dozens are out there at the safety rails, tethers trailing in the cold rain, but the sight is enough to take away our breath.
The late sun, on the second day after we made the turn, has found a gap in the overcast and its long rays paint the angry sea away to a horizon where, pink and gold in the evening light, stand the Andes. I’ve never seen mountains. I know these will only grow more impressive the further north we travel, but even now they hold me rapt. The dark ocean runs ponderously, but the wave crests are now lit in golden gleams, making them a wonder to my eyes, and the whole world seems pent with some expectation of new and better things to come.
Already I’ve put aside the fact I’m the one to see the possibilities in the equations, and to come to a conclusion unacceptable to others at that time. I’ve no idea what ego is, and no wish to learn. I stand with my father and grandmother, missing the mother who left us when I was young more than ever, and wishing she could have seen this amazing thing – the ranges rearing like the very walls of the world.
Night falls soon and the temperature will plummet. When we return to our closed habitat – to breathe the air of old Earth, to eat the synthesized, recycled food that’s become the mainstay of human life – there is a sense of being at the beginning of a new adventure.
One day, I truly believe, I will see a blue sky.
by Mike Adamson