The ladder juddered as it towed me down the travel tube. I didn’t resent it, because each jolt brought me closer to my underwater kingdom. The tube had a porthole every twenty metres or so. Through them, I could see the angular lumps on the sea-bed, half-built, already massive. The water darkened with each porthole — leaf-green, pine-green — until the travel tube threw me out, into the massive main deck-chamber.
Vic rolled up, and hugged me so hard that I stumbled.
‘It’s the best-paid plumber in the world! Looking like shite!’ she crowed.
‘I got a flight straight after you called me.’ Rushing to my first undersea city — well, my first sub-aquatic oil rig.
‘Remind me, you were at that sewage plant?’
‘Hydroelectric dam. But thanks again for the job. I owe you.’
‘Don’t thank me. This place is a rust-bucket. Make it water-tight, eh?’
The main deck-chamber was a metal cavern, but its roof was quartz glass. Standing beneath the arch of crystal, it was hard not to feel heroic — summoned by my friend to save the undersea city from danger.
‘It’s gorgeous,’ I said.
‘Oh, aye. That’s to stop us all getting cabin fever. It’s the only bloody window on the rig.’
I peered up into the green twilight. Far off in the water, a huge mass solidified. It slowly rotated and showed a single flipper.
‘Wow, is that –’
‘Yeah, we get a few of them.’ Vic sniffed, dismissive. The whale dissipated into the darkness.
We entered the metal corridors of the rig, which were humid and scruffy. Vic cannoned ahead of me in her chair. She moved surprisingly fast, making tighter turns round corners. I thought I knew why, but I was nervous about asking. I remembered making a shy enquiry about her mobility at college, and being scorched by her sarcasm: Yes, I’ve got what’s known medically as ‘buggered legs’. Named after Doctor Gerard Buggered, who first discovered it, of course…
I risked a leading question. ‘How’s the rig, for you?’
‘Flat floors, ramps. It’d be a dream home, if it wasn’t a pokey shite-hole. And this helps no end.’ She stopped and tapped the back of her neck.
A black metal blob nestled like a beetle under her straggling curls. It must be a spindle.
This was my first sea-bed rig. It was also the first place I’d ever worked where spindles were legal. The spindle on Vic’s neck fascinated me; it didn’t move, it made no sound, but it would be putting out eager-to-assist magnetic waves, pulsing all over her body. Making her more adept, as I’d suspected. Spindles were necessary for the mechanics, on underwater rigs, because of their high-accuracy, high-risk work. But surely spindles were optional, even irrelevant, for an engineer like Vic?
‘So, you’re using a spindle?’
‘ ‘Course I am. Saves me barking my shins.’ She slapped a pipe as she passed it, making it clang. ‘And I pop it on for ten minutes in the morning, it tells me how I’m doing. Says: hey – you could get around on the sticks and no’ feel too bad tomorrow. Or it says – today? Stay horizontal. That’s an effing life-saver. I’m taking it home with me.’
It would be illegal, but Vic would find a way. ‘Nothing.’
‘Here’s yours.’ She held out a matching bug.
I longed to try it, but as I reached out to take it, my hand quivered. Would the spindle work as soon as I touched it? Would it hurt? Vic put it on my palm and closed my fingers round it.
‘Don’t use it now. You need to acclimatise for a wee while, first.’
I tipped it into my shirt pocket. ‘Shall I unpack?’
‘Leave that. You might need to change cabins in a hurry. I’ll give you the grand tour! Welcome to the not-yet-lost city of Atlantis!’
She wasn’t mocking my heroic fantasies – she couldn’t even know about them – but it still grated. ‘You’re not really calling it-’
‘It’s called SubRigDK019. So yeah, we’re calling it Atlantis, pal.’
For four hours I trudged tunnels, following Vic in her chair. The rig was eerily quiet, for an industrial space; my footsteps clanked, and sometimes we heard a weird groan, made by the metal superstructure settling. We had to travel three sides of a square to get anywhere, because tunnels were closed off, leaking. Our tour was punctuated by doors with their wheel-locks spun tight, holding back the waters.
‘Is it disturbance from the drilling, do you think?’ I’d been generating hypotheses ever since Vic called.
‘Jeez, take a night off, will you?’
‘You know I need longer to think than you do.’ That was a polite way to put it. I was diligent and planned in advance; Vic was a last-minute merchant.
‘ Yeah, I know you’re a swot. We’ll go out in the tub-sub tomorrow, check the foundations.’
‘Can the spindle help us work out what’s wrong with the rig?’
‘They can’t tell you what you don’t know,’ Vic said, and before I could ask what that meant, we’d reached the mud tanks.
The huge room was full of mechanics. They were welding, drilling -– things I’d seen a thousand times — but I gaped at them. They were hypnotically good: fast, fluent, slippery as butter. Hands deft like card sharps. When they passed in the cramped spaces, they flowed around one another without pausing or touching.
‘Just like monkeys, eh?’ Vic asked.
I shook my head, embarrassed. Vic could insult mechanics and make friends with them. The best I could do, in either direction, was to treat them with stiff politeness. They looked like rats, to me, but I had the decency not to say it aloud.
A hammer fell from an overhead walkway, plummeted towards the mechs below. I squawked a warning, but in the same moment a hand shot out from a lower balcony and plucked it out of the air.
Vic hissed: “Super-monkeys!”
Before I could reply, Vic shouted for the mechs’ attention and introduced me to them. The mechs eyed me up. I called out that I was happy to work with them, lucky (showing my humility) to be here. Before my voice had finished echoing, the mechs turned back to their work.
Twenty feet down the corridor, I asked Vic: ‘Are they always like that?’
‘Did I say the wrong thing?’
‘It’s not you, pal!’
‘Does wearing a spindle make you moody?’
‘Doubt it. Why would it?’
I’d fantasised that a spindle would reveal my gymnastic grace, my incredible strength. Of course, I’d be wiser and happier as a result. But maybe -– the scowling mechs implied — self-knowledge made you miserable.
‘Well, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp.’
‘Why? What’s the point of that?’
Soon we were back in the deck-chamber, alone under the great window. Vic adopted the no-nonsense tone she’d used when introducing me to a new drug at college. ‘That’s your own wee spindle. It won’t work alone -– it just picks up the pulses from the big generators on the cellar deck. Take it off to sleep. Sit down while you put it on, here…’
She pressed the spindle onto the skin of my neck.
Vertigo swept me. My palms, groin, lips felt swollen, enormous, then snapped into proportion again.
‘Off you go.’
I paced across the metal floor.
‘Nothing’s different,’ I complained.
‘That’s ‘cause walking’s easy. Walk along that.’
Vic pointed at a narrow railing, four feet off the ground. I clambered up, straightened myself to standing. I wobbled, then realised I only wobbled from habit, from a muscle memory of uncertainty. I could walk along the rail perfectly easily. I knew it as though a laconic voice had told me: go on, it’s easy enough. I walked, then ran, and hopped off at the far end, grinning.
Vic pulled three tiny rubber balls from her pockets.
‘I can’t –’
She threw one hard at my head and I caught it without thinking. Two more followed -– I tossed them up, kept them in the air with easy flicks of my wrists. How to stop? I threw back my head, caught one between my teeth, which stung, but I heard Vic laughing and clapping.
‘I’m all out of ideas, pal.’
I climbed back up on a railing, and I knew –– knew I could flip myself over and land on my feet. The voice — speaking on an out-breath, almost a sigh — told me how to twist my body, how much force to use.
‘Can I jump?’
‘Why ask me?’ Vic leaned forward, gleeful.
I bent my knees, pushed off, pin-wheeled through the air.
I crunched down, feet flat. My ankles blazed with agony, and I yelled and toppled over onto my side.
Vic slow-clapped my stupidity. ‘Bravissimo!’
The voice of the spindle said: I knew it would hurt, you should have asked.
Vic gave me a bottle of psider to apologise. Mechanics filed into the deck-chamber as we drank, their shifts finished, taking a break from the claustrophobic tunnels.
A deep groan echoed up from the lower levels of the rig. The mechanics scowled, and some of the recent arrivals turned round and went to investigate.
‘Should I go…?’
‘Sit down. It’ll still be doin’ that tomorrow.’
I complied gratefully. My ankles were throbbing. I should have remembered: in our drug-taking days, Vic had been an unreliable babysitter.
‘You could have warned me.’
Vic smirked. ‘It’s no’ a bloody super-power.’
‘It felt like it.’
‘It’s only helping your proprioception -– knowing where your body is, knowing what you can do. I mean, I’m not knocking it — that’s plenty.’
I agreed, thinking of the dexterous mechanics.
‘But you can’t fly, or walk up walls, or any o’ that. And it can’t make you know what you don’t already know.’
She’d said it before, but the psider had muddled me and I still didn’t understand.
‘You can’t just see a thing and know, say, how heavy it is. You can’t look at this rig and know why it’s leaking. Or know if it’ll be a Monday on January 15th in 2052.’ Vic squinted. ‘Oh hang on, yes you can. It will be. Won’t it?’
I thought I heard my spindle agreeing. ‘Yes, it will! I think?’
Delighted, we tried to count on our fingers to check it, but we’d drunk too much.
‘So, how do I know what I know?’ I asked.
‘That’s one for the philosophers, pal. Stick to juggling. Oh, and the spindle makes you psychic.’
‘Well, kind of psychic? It tells you things you’ve noticed, but not noticed you’ve noticed. Good for your gut instinct. Take body-language. See them?’ Vic pointed her bottle at the mechanics. ‘They can tell just by looking whether you’re up for it.’
‘Don’t be ridiculous.’ I crossed my arms, to trap any messages I was unconsciously sending. But no, Vic had to be lying.
Vic hooted. ‘Don’t fret yourself, they won’t do anything! It doesn’t make you do anything. Look -’ A group of mechanics had spread out across the room. They started swaying in unison, sweeping their arms in synchronised circles. They leaned further than an un-spindled person could risk, matching each other exactly with the angles of their limbs. They were graceful despite their grubby overalls, like a field of wind turbines.
‘What are they doing?’
‘T’ai Chi. Makes them steadier, better at their jobs, but only half of them do it. A spindle can’t even make you do things you know you ought to do.’
I always did the things I ought to do. With a spindle, I’d be unbeatable. Had Vic been serious about smuggling one home? Could I do it, as well? How could I get hold of the other component, the big pulse generator?
A flurry of movement above our heads made me look up. Dolphins were rushing down to us, spiralling, as though mimicking the movements of the mechanics.
Vic grabbed my arm. ‘Come on. Bed-time.’
‘But the dolphins -’ I started to protest that I wanted to watch, that they were elegant, beautiful. But they weren’t. They were as drunk as I was, clumsy. Grey-blue bodies barged into one another, bucking in distress. I remembered that dolphins shouldn’t dive so deep. I hobbled back to my cabin.
The noise woke me, a giant thumb dragged along the outer wall of the rig. A piercing shriek and a shuddering roar simultaneously.
Vic shouted as she swung past my cabin on crutches: ‘Leak at H junction!’
We hurtled round the corner into H. A white force slammed me against the wall. Water battered my face, blasting my eyes shut and my mouth open, full, choking.
I felt Vic pinned beside me in the churning, freezing whiteness. She shoved me sideways. Metal jabbed me: the wheel of a safety door. We threw our joint weight against it. The water pushed back, juddering then kicking until my spine thrummed with pain. Water spurted out round every edge of the door.
I just needed to turn the wheel-lock, screw the door in tight, block the leak. I grabbed the grips of the wheel with both hands.
It wouldn’t turn. Vic howled in disbelief. I cried too, wordless begging.
Then everything became very clear. The sea would never stop coming. It would never stop trying to fill this rig, this seabed bubble. I needed to turn the wheel. The wheel would turn, if subjected to enough force. If I broke a finger, it would be worth it, to survive.
The first time I tried it hurt so much my hands sprung off the wheel and I screamed. The second time, the wheel moved. It loosened, I spun it. It winched the door in, first kissing then gripping its frame.
The jets of water shrieking all round us faltered. The foam calmed round our feet. I was ice cold, apart from my smouldering hands. I held them in front of me, limp but triumphant.
I dropped my sodden overalls on the floor of my cabin, caught some broken sleep. Vic shook me awake. Purple-black bruises blotted her arms.
‘Get up, pal.’
‘Is it another leak?’
My hands were stiff with pain, so Vic zipped me into dry overalls.
‘Jeez, look at your mitts.’
I looked at my own hands with a wondering smugness. Each one had bruised and swelled where the wheel had cut. It looked as though I was offering Vic handfuls of plums. I’d be clumsy for a week, but it felt like a badge of honour. I’d undergone a hero’s trial. Now my strength had been tested, I could solve the puzzle, save the city.
‘It’s OK -– it was worth it,’ I reassured her.
‘Because I never knew I was so strong!’
‘What, you think it was the spindle?’
‘Of course. I knew what to do.’
‘I said: it can’t tell you what you don’t know. You didn’t know that wheel would ever turn. It could have been rusted tight.’
So the calm resolve I’d felt hadn’t been wisdom. It had been distilled panic. I looked at my mangled hands again, less proud of them. I might have drowned, deluding myself that I’d save us. I tried to conjure up the voice of the spindle, and to remember whether I’d heard it last night. I couldn’t be sure. But it must have hinted to me.
‘See?’ Vic pointed to a black blob lying beside my pillow. I’d taken my spindle off to sleep, before the leak, and not replaced it. ‘Stick it on now, you’ll need it.’ I did, bracing myself against the moment of vertigo. Vic passed me my bag, still packed.
‘The mechs have left,’ she announced as I followed her. ‘They’ve been going up the tube all night.’
‘They won’t stay in a rig this unstable. I don’t blame them. But we can’t stay without them.’
Her offhand tone made me feel gauche for being surprised. In fact, ever since I’d arrived, she’d been handling me – waving away my concerns, or flattering me. More than she’d do for a new recruit, or an old friend. And as soon as I saw that, I knew why she was distracting me.
‘It was a whale hitting the rig, wasn’t it? The leak,last night.’
Vic didn’t answer.
‘Has it always been whale damage? All the problems with the rig?’
‘Aye. It’s the pulse from the big spindle generators. Has a kind of reverse effect on them, buggers their sense of direction. Can’t build the rig without the spindles, can’t use the spindles without the whales going nuts.’
Her flippant admission infuriated me. Hadn’t she called me, two days ago, saying terrible problem, total mystery, need your help…?
‘How am I supposed to fix that?’
‘God knows. You’d need some kind of cetacean psychologist.’
‘I’m a water engineer.’
‘You’re an overpaid plumber, like me. I got you a six month consulting contract, didn’t I? Now you tell them about Moby Dick, they shut the rig, and they’ll pay you anyway. Two days of underwater juggling, and you get six months’ money, eh?’
I hadn’t wanted the money. I’d wanted to be a hero — a super-hero — building an underwater city.
‘You lied –’
‘Because I know you! You’re your own worst enemy, you wouldn’t have come!’
I didn’t reply, because we’d reached the main deck-chamber, and the window above us was crowded. The whales jostled like storm-clouds. The nearest one brushed the arched glass with the swell of its underjaw, as though curve called to curve.
Vic pushed me towards the travel tube.
We rose in silence up the mechanical ladder for ten minutes, until the overtaxed motor graunched and we stopped.
Vic peered out of the nearest porthole into the bottle-green water. She looked down, at the half-flooded rig, where the sea would be rushing along corridors and foaming around the spindle generators on the cellar deck. Then up the tube, at nine hundred rungs of stationary ladder. She rubbed her neck.
My spindle made her body-language as clear as words to me. She was about to say: leave me, save yourself. Send help, but don’t worry if I don’t make it. She’d say it with her usual rough bravado. Perhaps she’d even apologise to me, for bringing me here.
What should I say in response?
Vic wiped her hands on her overalls. ‘I can pull myself up the first two-thirds. And if they haven’t sent a sub-tub down, by then, you can drag me up the last stretch.’
The faint voice of my dying spindle informed me: Yes, you can do that. It’ll hurt.