“Helideck-crew to the helideck, helideck-crew to the helideck…”
The roar of the chopper filled the room. I shifted, attempting to relieve an itch at my shoulder. It didn’t work, the dry-suit was too thick. I shifted again.
Red-striped dusk lay beyond the window, vaulted clouds above a black sea. I couldn’t see the rig from this angle. Beautiful.
“Looking forward to your first pint?” the radio-op gave me a pat on the shoulder.
“Aye,” I said, “It’s been a long couple of weeks.”
“Tell me about it, I’m knackered and I’m only halfway through.”
The helicopter grew quieter. It had landed. Only two other chairs in the departure lounge were occupied. For Tim and me it was the usual, our monthly crew change. I didn’t know the other lad. Dried tears stained his face. I didn’t like to ask.
The door swung opened and five men marched in, bulky black bags in each hand. I spotted Dave, gave him a smile, shook his hand, “You alright man?”
“Aye, made the most of my time on shore at least. How’s it here?”
“Steady drilling, nothing too stressful. Replaced the draw-works encoder. It’s all in here.” I handed him the dirty sheet of A4, my official handover. “The engineer’s a nice guy, if you can look past his long lunches and musical taste.”
Dave rolled his eyes and removed his life jacket, passed it to me. I put it on, hefted my luggage. He winked, “Enjoy your time a home, you’ll be back here before you know it!”
“Don’t remind me. Have a good hitch mate.”
Dave grinned, gave me a nod, and I shuffled after the other orange suited men out onto the walkway. Sea tumbled beneath the open lattice work.
The helipad crowned the rig. Here air. Below, industry. A stand of drill pipe being driven from the derrick deep into rock. Brightly clad figures scurrying about the decks, lit up in harsh white light. And all around the ocean.
I found my seat and struggled with the four point harness. That done I reached behind me, grabbed the ear-defenders, and shut my eyes. It was relaxing, even soothing in in its own way. Blunted senses, the white-noise of rotary blades, a gentle rocking as they span. I barely heard the pilot speak before I was away. When I awoke I’d be looking down on Scotland.
Beep… Beep… Beep…
Sharp noises dragged me up. What was that?
The alarm? Shit. Oh shit.
“Brace! Brace! Brace! Prepare for water landing. Brace!”
Shit. I planted my feet, hands gripping the seat either side of me. Muscles strained against plastic. My heart hammered, my head swam. Oh shit. I might die. Oh fuck. I forced myself to breathe. In… and out… In… and out…
The sea exploded. Metal twisted, screeched. My grip was torn from the seat, my bones rattled. I heard moaning. That was good, moans were good. Others were alive.
My hand went to the harness release. I felt my feet rising, a cold pressure on them. Damn. We were already sinking. The water rose up around me. I told myself not to panic and prayed the life raft would deploy.
I put my elbow to the wall, locating the window. In position. Freezing water reached my chin. Not long. I fought down a scream. One big, slow inhalation of breath through my nose and my head was under. One… two… three… four… five…
I slammed my elbow against the window and felt it move out into the ocean. My heart skipped a beat. Hand on the opening, I released the harness and dragged myself through. Icy darkness surrounded me. I could see nothing, hear nothing. The void. I was lost.
Silencing fear I tugged the cord of my life-jacket. It inflated, dragging me upwards. I surfaced with a splash, gasping for air. Took in two great lungfuls. I was alive, damn it. Alive.
The weather met me. Winds struck and waves tossed, robbing me of breath. I pulled myself forward, span around, trying to thrust my body from the water, find safety. Somewhere. The ocean spat in my face, burning my throat, stinging my eyes. I coughed salt water.
Again I turned, eyes straining against the spray. Again I kicked my feet, shoved my arms downward. There. I saw it. Light. A blinking light calling me. The raft.
I swam, aching, cold. Water clung like weights, my joints flaming at its pull. Nearly there. With a cry I hauled myself into the little craft, landing on my face. I heard voices, but for a moment simply lay breathing, enjoying the act.
I took a few deep, raw inhalations. My heart slowed ever so slightly. Bit by bit. Adrenaline and water dripped from my eyes and ears, and the world slid back into place. The sky. The sea. The creaking rubber.
“Mack?” I was shaken, “Mack? You alive man?”
I groaned. The tang of salt on me. A firm grip seized my shoulder, and I was rolled over onto my front. I blinked. Lifejacket torches showed me two wet faces.
“Tim?” I reached out, put my hand on him, “Thank fuck you’re ok.”
“Aye and thank fuck twice for you mate. Figured you’d met your maker.” He grinned.
I tried to smile.
“Come on, we best get the roof up, keep the spray off us at least. I’ve set the transponder, so they’ll know we’re here.” Tim crawled to the round wall of the raft, began dragging the tarpaulin out and over. “Give us a hand Carl,” he said, waving the other man over.
We both moved to help Tim with the roof, trying not to rock the little craft too much.
“Any sign of the pilots?” I asked.
“Must’ve been near five minutes since we hit Mack.” Tim shook his head, “If they… I’m sorry.”
It took a second to penetrate. Two, dead. Blank, too shocked for tears. I slumped against the side of the raft, breathing. In and out. Forcing myself calm. I wasn’t the only one. It just didn’t seem real.
Night spread above us, the sky mirrored in the basaltic sea that tossed us to and fro. Time stretched out. We had no energy for talk, no strength for more than waiting. No rescue came.
“Do you have any water?” asked Carl. His head was leant back against the wall. I reached down to the leg pocket of my drysuit, glad I always took a bottle.
“Here you are man. Save me a drop though, eh?”
He took the bottle, creased a smile. “Cheers.”
“I’ve a bottle too, and a magazine, so don’t freak out,” said Tim, “We’ve got enough to tide us over till the buggers come get us. Can’t be too much longer.”
The few mouthfuls of water eased my throat, but left me unquenched. We smiled to each other, silent comrades. Tim made a go of reading his magazine, but put it down after only a few pages. The storm rose up, a wall around us. I longed for sleep, for rescue. It wouldn’t be long. Couldn’t be.
I woke to the briefest sinking sensation. Everything was quiet. Memories returned to me, didn’t make sense. I stilled myself. Nothing.
“Hhh-what was that?” asked Tim, rubbing his eyes.
“Felt like we sank down a second,” said Carl.
“Aye,” I said, “And do you hear that?”
We sat, breathless.
“Nothing. And we’re not moving either.” Tim remained still a moment more, his head cocked in the half light. “Could we have washed ashore in the night?” He fumbled with his sleeve, “What time is it anyway?”
I looked down at my watch, the hands showing midnight. “Mid…” But no, it had stopped. “Damned thing’s broke.”
“Mine too,” added Carl.
“Well then, let’s have a look see.” Tim shuffled over to the zip, tugged it upward, unroofing us. Beyond stretched a sky the color of ash. It hung above, motionless and impotent. No warmth fell upon us, infusing our bodies. The cold and damp clung about us protectively.
I pulled myself to the edge and stared. Nothing. From the foot of the raft to the pole of the sky there was only grey. An all pervading absence, more than empty. There was no horizon.
I suddenly felt I was falling. The walls of my awareness rushed away in all directions and I tumbled, dislocated, a point swallowed in volume. I fought down the flux of my guts, nausea and cold sweats coming upon me. No one found their voice.
Time passed. We sat, minds unwilling to process. Voiceless we argued, internal battles of will, the ache of tiredness coupled with the lurch of confusion contending with need for action. I watched Tim’s face squirm, saw the dampness in Carl’s eyes. With effort I drew a veil across my mind, shutting out the higher functions, the questions. It was time for action.
Something clung about the sides of the raft, appearing to flow down unbroken from the sky. We were half sunken in it. I leant over the edge, ran my hands through it. It tumbled from my fingers like soft dust. I grabbed a handful, scrunched it, felt the resistance. It was solid. Good. There was a floor here. Knots began to loosen in my stomach, mind happy to have a straw to clutch.
“There’s sand beneath us,” I said, keeping my gaze down, focused on the traces of substance, my submerged fingers reassuring my eyes.
Tim joined me, scooped some up, “You sure it’s sand?”
I shrugged my shoulders, “What else could it be?”
Tim poured the material from one hand to the other, watching the monochrome flow.
“No shadows,” I muttered.
Tim shrugged, “Could be atmospheric conditions?”
I nodded, “Maybe.” It would do for now, a safe full stop to that line of thought. We couldn’t afford to be dragged back to vegetation.
I took a decision, jumped down. The sand compacted under me, shifting as I steadied myself. I took a step, then another. “It’s okay,” I called up, “We can walk on it.”
Tim landed beside me and we traversed the circumference of the raft, the grains of the floor making soft noises as we passed. “Do you think we’re on a beach?” he asked.
“Could be,” I said.
I gestured to the raft. It was held by the sand at a slight angle, a lonely feature against the infinite, “If we washed up on a beach, from how we’re sunk, I’d say the sea was back that way,” I pointed behind us.
“So if we go the other way, we’ll head inland?”
We looked at each other. Tim made as if to speak, but all that came out was a faint groan. He looked down. I did too. A shiver passed through me, deep and long. I exhaled.
Noise tore the air. The universe trembled in response. I felt my body shake, fell to my knees. The sound continued, stretching out into a deep, undulating wave. I clasped my hands to my ears, trying to shut it out. Deafening, ceaseless, every fiber of being falling into rhythm. I was in a fetal position, tears streaming from my eyes. Bones were about to split apart. I screamed. I couldn’t think, couldn’t even breathe.
Then silence. Oppressive and still. So sudden. I began to cry from the pain, my body aching and ravaged. And slowly came the stench. An abattoir smell. It sat in my mouth, filled my lungs, hung around me like a shroud. It was too much, my brain thrashed out in terror. Blackness came.
I opened my eyes to the same ashen waste I had left. Tim was standing over me. He knelt and offered me a hand, heaved me to my feet. He looked into my face, “It’s over.”
Tim nodded, “The noise.”
“Was I out?”
“Aye lad. Me too, I think, but not for so long.”
“I feel sick.”
“Look it too. Doubt I’m much better. Let’s check on Carl.”
Carl had his eyes closed, huddled at the back of the raft, rocking slowly.
“It’s okay Carl,” I said, “It was just… must have been just a tremor.”
Carl sniffled, “What kind of tremor stinks like that, sounds like that?”
I put up my hands, palms out, “Maybe it released trapped gas. I don’t know man.” I shook my head, “We’re all knackered and stressed and half drowned anyway.”
“We’re not thinking straight,” Tim put in, “But, we think we’ve found a way inland.”
“Aye lad, we must have just washed up in the night. We’re on land now, some sort of tidal flat. Come on, let’s get going. You’ll be having a pint in no time.”
He opened his eyes, looked at me, then Tim, then got to his feet. We helped him down, smiling at him. The three of us filled up the equipment bags with anything that looked useful and hefted them onto our backs. The raft behind us, we set out.
On and on. We marched. My legs didn’t ache. I didn’t grow thirsty. The air was still. I began to lose myself. The sky and my body becoming one, all a single sweep of the artist’s brush. I couldn’t shake the notion that we were walking inward. None of us spoke. To form thoughts, attempt answers, that would be to open ourselves to risk.
Our steps left no impression; behind and beyond the sand was an unbroken canvas. The sound came again. And again. Stronger, and yet more subtle. A voice. Words to stir memories. I forced them away, the thoughts stillborn, returned my gaze to my feet, observed how they sank and sifted through the sand. So like ash. We did not lose consciousness again.
“Did you say your watch stopped at midnight?” asked Tim.
I blinked, shook myself, nodded, looking down just to check. “Yeah, damn thing stopped dead on, second hand and all. What are the chances, huh?”
Tim pulled a face, “Mine stopped then too, exactly midnight.” He lifted his arm to show me.
I swallowed, “Coincidence?” We both turned to look at Carl. Head down, without turning he looked at us from the corner of his eye, nodded.
We returned to silence, save for the sifting sound as we dragged our feet through the soft sand. The beach, if that’s what is was, stretched on ahead. I’d completely lost track of time, of position. Scared to look too deeply into the grey behind, the prospect that the raft would be sitting there too unnerving.
It wasn’t until we passed close by one, that we noticed them. Rising from the sand stood great pillars of the same colour. In the strange light of the featureless sky it was difficult to make anything out, yet with effort I began to distinguish shapes amid the void.
Leaving Carl to tend our baggage, and in truth not wishing to expose him to anything ominous, Tim and I approached one of the structures. It was many meters broad, a great pillar stretching up into the sky. “How tall do you reckon it is?” asked Tim.
I squinted, put my hand to my eyes. I could see no break in the grey. “I can’t tell.” I shook my head, “Could go on forever for all I can tell.” I reached out to touch it, felt the rough dryness of it under my fingers, like desiccated, brittle stone.
“Where do you think we are, really?” asked Tim, his voice low.
I shrugged, “Honestly, I don’t know. I mean I’ve had thoughts, but I don’t know if it’s a good idea to dwell on them, you know?”
“Aye I know. But if we’re going to get home we might need to start considering the question.”
“Are we dead?”
Tim snorted, a trace of a smile, “I didn’t take you for someone who believes in all that.”
“Good. Let’s be reasonable. But I admit I know of nowhere on Earth that looks like this shit.”
“What do you remember of last night, of after we were all in the raft?”
“Nothing. The storm, the darkness, that’s it.”
A sound intruded then, soft and rhythmic. Not the sound we’d heard before. We rushed back to Carl, found him sitting, crying. Tim crouched, put an arm over his shoulder. “Hay lad, it’s okay. We’ll get out of this mess, it’s okay.”
Carl choked off his sobs, wiped his nose. “It’s not that. Well it’s that, but it’s just… just, fuck!” He crunched his face, a mask of fury and tears.
“Come on lad, what’s on your mind. You’ve not been right, I can see you’ve not been right since before we left the rig. What’s eating at you?”
Carl took a deep breath, let it out slow, looked into Tim’s face, pleading. “There was an accident. My wife, fuck, my kid.” He slapped his face, eyes up at the sky, “I need to get back, I fucking need to be there. Fuck!”
Tim and I remained quiet, our minds private. “I know what it’s like to lose someone,” said Tim.
I nodded, “We all do.”
Tim cleared his throat, then gave Carl a slap on the back, “Well then, let’s damn well get going.” He hauled Carl to his feet, “We’re getting you home, come on, get your feet moving.”
Again the endless grey. I began to see little black shapes moving at the edge of my vision, necrotic little beetles scurrying, always scurrying. Yet when I blinked, turned to look, they were gone. It must just be noise I told myself, my eyes rebelling against the monotony. I went back to watching my feet.
I was in a purely functional state when Carl cried out, pointing “There’s something ahead!”
My eyes struggled to focus. Against the eternity a black spot stood out, a wound in the grey. We rubbed our eyes, looked again. It was still there.
“What do you think it is?” I asked.
“Whatever it is, it’s something new, and in my books that’s a good thing. At least as far as here’s concerned,” said Tim.
We walked with renewed vigour, our legs pulling us forward, questing after the possibilities the spot offered. With each step the air grew thicker with the smell, now silent and permanent, a too sweet, rotten taste taken with each breath.
The blackness swelled with a speed that strained the eons. We walked as wind erodes mountains, the distance departing by the grains of sand at our feet. My body felt blank, my mind ached. The stench filled me. Each movement of my legs dragged me down, inward.
We had been silent a long time. With an effort I tore my gaze away from the hole, glanced at the others. Tim was strong, chest out, face set, a soldier’s march in his step. But Carl, poor Carl. His stare was fixed ahead, eyes wide and sparkling, his mouth moving in silent conversation. I turned quickly from him, unable to muster kind words, to break whatever spell he was under. My own mind was a fragile thing, I needed my energy.
The hole grew large, then huge, then impossible, and yet still it grew. A vast rent, deep and yawning, splitting the sky. I was on my belly, realized I had been crawling for some time. The stench, the void, it had drowned my thoughts.
The rim approached. Leaning on my elbows I dragged myself to the edge and looked down into it. A light glowed within, red and throaty. The sides glistened. Air rose out and then was drawn back in. Hot and moist. We all lay entranced, in awe of the thing.
As I fell deeper into the rhythmic trance of the place, faint sounds floated up to me with the air, whispers becoming words. The hot breath clawed my ears, forcing me to pay attention, tempting me to comprehend.
My vision began to waver and my senses blurred. In the deepest glow there writhed a figure.
“Oh my son.”
A stinging warmth surged through me. I knew that voice. Had known it.
“Dad?” I reached out to the voice, straining to grasp at shadows, “Dad.”
“Come to me. Help me.”
I leant out further, feeling the sand trickle under me, “Dad!”
The image flickered beneath me, a vapor beyond reach. “Come.”
I felt myself slipping, tears in my eyes.
Cutting through my thoughts came Carl’s voice, “You’ve come back!”
I shook my head, pushed myself back, tried to focus. Carl was beside me, hands outstretched, his body half over the edge. There was a smile on his face.
“Marie, oh God. I thought… you and Abby…” He sobbed, “My love.”
I watched him tilt forward, and tumble softly over the side. I didn’t move. Then the sound came, and what had been the voice of my father grew into deep, throbbing laughter. Crunching and slurping. Loud, so loud. Pain filled my head, made to split it apart.
I was tugged up roughly and pushed away from the pit.
“Run!” shouted Tim and pushed me again.
I ran. I ran blind and I ran hard. The rumbling continued, the grinding echoing inside my skull. I could hear Tim’s ragged breath beside me. I ran and I ran and I screamed and I ran. Already the laughter had become distorted, the pitch shifting, fragmenting. The greyness had begun to dissolve, patches of light burning behind the cracks.
Still I ran, till my head felt light. The voice had become the ocean, the stench the spray. I could no longer hear Tim. My whole body spasmed in pain as the fabric of the world burst. As the black spots of my vision swelled and swallowed my sight, I ran.
Soft light touched me. The sun. I moaned and tried to turn away. A woman’s voice said something in a language I didn’t understand. I rolled my head and tasted the salt of the air. I heard the roar and the crash of waves. I wept.
“Hey,” came the woman’s voice, “It’s okay. You and your friend are alright.”
I sniffed, “Tim?”
“Yeah, your friend Tim is here. And you are okay. Now hold on while we get you in the ambulance.”
I looked around, “Where am I?”
I shrugged, blinking away tears.
“We’re in Norway. Fisherman saw you two floating in the sea. You’re lucky to be alive.”
“Two of us?”
“Yeah. Is that right? Any others out there?”
“I… I don’t know.”
She patted me on the shoulder, “It’s okay. You’re going to be okay.” She smiled, “You’re safe now.”
I reached down, felt the rough grit of the sand between my fingers, saw the gulls turning in the wind. I wanted to sigh, for relief to wash over me. But it didn’t come. Wouldn’t come. I felt cold.
“I’m safe,” I said, “I’m safe.”
Bio: I am George, a Planetary Science PhD student, genre fiction and history enthusiast, and former rig worker.