(Story originally appeared in Tastes Like Chicken, issue 9, 2005)
The year was 2046.
My parents took me to a fancy restaurant for my birthday; a giant wedge-shaped thing perched on a series of curved, reinforced stilts 200 feet above a forest of deep and infinite green. The sun singed the treetops with an inaudible hiss as it slid below the horizon and a sweet breeze, pumped in from somewhere overhead, made the candles of my birthday cake flicker and sway softly. The light in my mother’s eyes danced and waved like fire. I was nine years old.
As the waiter set the cake down on the table and everyone drew a breath to sing “Happy Birthday”, suddenly there came a terrible pain in my skull, and I screamed like a wild thing. Throwing an arm across my face, I flailed and lashed blindly at the jungle of comforting hands tangled up in mine. My father seized me in his strong arms but was unable to prevent me from flinging myself out of my chair and onto the floor, taking the table cloth and the contents of the table with me. I felt as if the sides of my head were going to burst out like dammed waters, and I could imagine a boiling wave of bloody red breaking like the tide, spilling across the floor.
As I rolled around howling like a wounded animal and nearly blinded by pain, I saw something through my tears. Beyond the enormous picture windows which framed the off-season balcony was a sight unlike anything I had ever beheld– a stack of twinkling lights in the shape of a man, leaning casually against the railing and admiring the view. Those one-hundred-thousand colors I would never learn a name for stood out against the fading twilight, changing and shifting without pattern, without end or beginning. “Shimmer Man,” said my writhing brain. And as I continued to gape in painful amazement, I swear it turned to face me and even waved hello. The knives of pain subsided, and the twinkling lights began to fade.
The year is 2079.
It took the former United States almost 50 years to get it fully functional.
Despite the hundreds who lost their lives before the keel was ever laid, despite two serious on-board fires, despite a near-total fuel contamination which resulted in the jettisoning of a billion-dollar experiment, the Space Orbiting Platform “Promise” was christened on schedule and became a rallying point for post-war citizens. It was our symbol of the pride we thought we’d lost forever.
Nothing lasts forever, except nothing and forever.
When the main stabilizers went offline 72 hours ago, the ship began to slide, drawn ever closer to the Earth’s atmosphere. The captain of the broken Promise gave the order to evacuate the research vessel’s full compliment: giant robotic arms managed to deploy the twin 770-foot life pods before the Earth’s gravitational pull played “she-loves-me-not” with chunks of the mighty ship, dissecting indiscriminately, sending flaming red petals skipping across the sky. It was a horrifying sight, visible from anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, and covered by every network in every country around the world, simultaneously.
The first life pod was struck by debris from the initial explosion and destroyed immediately. The survivors never had a chance, and the pieces burned up on re-entry. The second managed an emergency crash landing in the North Atlantic Ocean, vanishing under the waves in the time it takes to read this sentence.
The floatation system failed. Two hundred people died, and two survived.
The Promise came down hard. A lot of people wanted to know why, and they wanted to know yesterday. So I admit, I was in a bit of a hurry. And maybe I wasn’t paying enough attention to what I was doing. We were nosing in and around the engine room of the lifeboat, this once-colossal wreck that lay twisted on the ocean floor. Me and Perfect Tommy, my by-the-book dive partner of five years, noting different instrument readings and keeping our eyes peeled for the Engineering Officer’s electronic logbook, which might shed some light on what happened up there. The “black box” system on board the Promise was designed to store reports in triplicate. Two of them were lost forever; the last was here. Somewhere. That’s why we get paid the big bucks.
P.T.’s voice, punctuated by carefully measured gulps of air, came over the Divelink. “Coffee, our window’s up.” Hiss. “Mark position, let’s go.” We use short sentences to preserve energy and air. “Roger.” Hiss. “Mark position.” I removed a luminous wax marker from my sleeve bag and carefully scribed my initials, the time, and a few symbols on the bulkhead in our team-specific color, to show that this space had been checked. “Head for the Bouncer.” Hiss. “Right behind you.” Hiss. “Just want to wave a light in that corner.” Hiss.
“Leave it, kid.” Hiss. “We’ll be here awhile.” Hiss. “Check it later.” But he was out the door, and headed for the Bouncer. He’d probably noticed our mixture running low. He’s good on details.
The remote-operated Bouncer is a combination decontamination station and hyperbaric chamber; it was also our slow boat to the surface. Decom first, depressurise on the way back up. There are formulas to be followed to prevent the dreaded bends.
When high-pressure gases in the air come in contact with water, they dissolve into the water. That’s how carbonated drinks are made– exposing water to high-pressure carbon dioxide gas, and dissolving the gas into water. Surface too quickly, and it’s like uncorking a bottle of champagne. Only really painful, and a lot more fatal. To avoid this, we have to rise slow or make intermittent decompression stops on the way up so the gas can come out on its own. The only solution is to enter a pressurized chamber in which the air pressure matches the pressure at depth (breathing 100% oxygen on the way to the chamber also helps). Then, the pressure is released slowly. But to get to the chamber you have to be “clean”. After all, contaminate the chamber, and we’re all screwed.
P.T. turned to make sure I’d followed him, and I saw his face light up with a smile behind his visor. “Bet I whip your ass in checkers again.” Hiss.
“Sure you will, you cheatin’ bastard.” Hiss. Hearing the sound of your best friend’s digitized laughter in your ears when you’re a mile underwater is a strange experience.
The hatch of the Bouncer is controlled by a gamma-specific fluorometer, which takes a reading from every diver working this wreck before allowing them access. The water passing through a cell in the chamber is exposed to an ultra-violet light from a shielded source. Some molecules absorb the energy from this radiation and give back this energy by emitting a light, which is then read by a super-sensitive detector and transmitted to the Bouncer’s brain. The amount of fluorescent light produced depends on the amount of gamma detected, so a high reading above background in an already hot environment like this means I show up hot. And if I show up too hot, the door won’t open, essentially protecting the rest of the crew, and our only hyperbaric chamber from whatever threat might be present until I can be safely cleaned. If the chamber gets contaminated, you lose eight divers to the bends instead of one to gamma poisoning.
Like I said, that’s why we get paid the big bucks.
P.T. eased the bulk of his suit into the chamber, gave me a thumbs-up, and closed the door. The chamber is only big enough for one diver at a time, and the decon cycle takes about five minutes. As I waited my turn, I nervously eyed the rapidly falling needle that registered the amount of good air available (if you can call this shit “air”). Suddenly, I noticed flashing lights on my BUG. Tiny digital words scrolling across the screen made my blood run cold: my suit was losing pressure! As I was leaving Engineering, I must have snagged my suit on something– I couldn’t tell what, or where, or how bad. Looking up and around me, I could see a tiny stream of silvery bubbles colliding with the overhead, coming from somewhere behind my left shoulder.
“A diver need not worry about having his body contaminated, unless the diving suit or helmet physically leaks.” That’s what the rule books say. Unfortunately, I’ve got some urgent little lights flashing on and off on my BUG that say otherwise. The Bathymetric Underwater Gauge on my forearm provides me with critical information, like updated water temperature, present depth, estimated amount of nitrogen, and in this case, a plus-or-minus-10 reading of gamma in my immediate vicinity. Those numbers are rising. Slowly. I’m hot and getting hotter, fast. At this rate, I won’t be able to get into the Bouncer!
I glance up at the stream of bubbles over my shoulder again. They’ve gotten more pronounced.
“If a leak does occur, the dive must be terminated.” Rules are rules. I tried to remain calm. Water is a very dense material, and acts as an excellent shielding material to protect me from gamma. Because I’m immersed in water, I can control the amount of significant shielding maintained between me and the source by increasing the relative distance. Simple. The water itself is not radioactive– the only radiation that can be detected in the water comes from particles suspended in the water. Gamma and neutron radiation are not particles– they’re pure energy without mass, and must be shielded by material that has a great deal of mass, such as water, concrete, or lead. Of these forms of radiation, gamma is the ionizing radiation source from which the diver will receive the majority of his accumulated dose. Since water is such a great shield to ionizing radiation, I work in an environment which protects me from radiation. Pretty smart, huh?
Unless, as previously mentioned, I happen to tear my suit. And that’s just the beginning of my problems.
At these depths, wreck divers face nitrogen narcosis, high partial pressures of carbon dioxide and physiological mechanisms that experts have yet to understand, which can either lead directly to or contribute substantially to certain death. With the increased use of breathing media other than air over the years, there’s been a dramatic increase in fatalities caused by oxygen toxicity. Central Nervous System Toxicity (CNS) is a real motherfucker. Breathing oxygen at very high pO2s for a short period of time means problems arrive that much quicker. We’re talking visual disturbances, pronounced ringing in the ears, dizziness, mood swings, and convulsions and comas. Oh, yeah. And hallucinations.
So, I may or may not be seeing what I think I see ahead of me at the end of Passageway 4– a stack of twinkling lights in the shape of a man, leaning casually against the bulkhead, staring back at me: a hundred thousand colors I’ll never have the chance to learn the names for, changing and shimmering without pattern, without end or beginning… I shake my head several times to get rid of the vision. Must be ambient light passing through the stream of bubbles, casting a shadow, my eyes playing tricks on me, something. But I can’t shake it away, and I can’t tell myself I’m not seeing what I think I’m seeing.
The great thing about the Divelink communication Voice Recognition Chip is that it isn’t triggered by bubbles or ambient noise. The mouthpiece is a patented silicon rubber speaking cavity, and doesn’t require any straps. The automatic gain and squelch controls leave my hands free while I’m working, and it’s good to a range of 4,500 feet. Furthermore, the system is equipped with an emergency signal that alerts other divers (and the surface!) when a diver is in distress. I’ve had conversations with multi-billion-dollar company heads, sitting safe in their polished offices while I’m surveying a wreck, offering an on-scene, real-time cost estimate as to how much it will cost to salvage their ruined high-tech chunk of shit sitting on the ocean floor.
My words are automatically picked up by the surface unit, relayed through a wireless transmitter, and sent anywhere in the world as streaming audio. In this case, my dying words. Somewhere above me in a Shoreside Control Facility crammed with radio equipment and laptop computers, I imagine my raspy voice floating out of the speakers, filling the crowded room with the sound of a broken riddle.
“Beautiful?” Big Bobby Keegan grins broadly at the gathered logistics team and keys the mic. “Hey, Coffee! Who the hell ya got down there with you?” Schoolboy titters flash like fish in the water from a group of hardened men who work hard, play hard, and live like kings the world over.
“Cut the crap, Bobby,” barks Cappy. “Play back his last transmission. What the hell’s he talking about?”
The looped playback of my voice crackles over the speakers. “…so beautiful… (crack) …so beautiful… (crack) …so beautiful… (crack) …so beautiful… (crack).”
“Good Christ, he’s hallucinating! How long has he been down there?”
“About 45 minutes, doing an engine room survey with…” checks the roster, “Perfect Tommy.” Checks another gauge. “…who is… in the Bouncer.”
“How much good air does Coffee have left?” Cappy looks straight to Big Bobby for an answer, who checks the dancing LED readouts in a hurry as his grin dissolves like sunset.
“Maybe, uh, five minutes.”
“Maybe?!? Shit! How far is the Assist Team from his position?”
“Far end of the ship, about five minutes away, but they can’t do anything for him, Cappy.”
“Coffee’s hot. And he’s getting hotter.”
“Rad! Talk to me!”
During all nuclear diving projects, our dive crew is under the omnipotent control of the senior radiation protection technician, Rad Man. Rad is responsible for the radiation protection of each diver, plus the entire crew. He’s a short, fat bastard with more chins than a Chinese phone book, and total authority on the project– any doubt about conditions, the first sign of trouble, and Rad pulls the plug: all the budgeting issues, scheduling delays, and pissed-off stockholders in the world don’t make a fucking lick of difference. Rad’s word is final law.
Rad checks the numbers, frowning, hesitating. “At present… he’s still ALARA.” As Low As Reasonably Achievable.
Cappy takes a deep breath. “Plain English, Rad. Give me something good.”
Rad looks up from his instruments and returns the deep breath. “He’s got a bad suit tear. If we don’t get him out in the next few minutes, he’ll–”
Cappy pointed a finger in Rad’s face. “I distinctly remember using the word ‘good’ in that sentence.”
Cappy turned to another man. “Can P.T. still get to him?”
“Negative, Cap. Tommy’s already in the chamber, with another two minutes in his cycle. We’d lose two trying to save one.”
“Well, we can’t just leave him there! Think of something, damnit!” He keys up the mic again, and tries to find a smile among the cracks in his voice.
“Hey, down there! You doing okay, Coffee? We’re working on something. We’ll get you back. We’ll get you clean, and you can return to the surface. Don’t forget, you still owe me $500 from that bar in Singapore, remember? Don’t make me come down there and get it myself, over!” His voice is shaky with laughter, but his eyes are far from twinkling. He snaps the mic off again.
In the silence, the drops of sweat forming on his bald head are the only sound.
He snatches up the mic again.
“Coffee? You listenin’?”
“Coffee? Come on back, brother. Don’t you give up on me, over!”
I can hear the chatter from my Divelink’s cushioned earbuds– a tinny voice from the world far above me, somewhere in the warm, glittering sunlight. A world I know I’ll never see again. According to the BUG I just ran out of breathable air. I can feel it already– that shortness of breath, combined with a burning throat and chest associated with Pulmonary Oxygen Toxicity. Damage to the cell lining of the lungs, the lung walls, the formation of fluid in the lungs. The simple act of breathing becomes steadily more painful. In order to conserve my energy, I kneel down to think. Assess.
What do I have going for me? The surface team will try to come up with something. The Assist Team always carry pony bottles of air, maybe it’ll be enough. Too far… I could… maybe I could… what if I… nothing. Nothing’s coming.
The Bouncer won’t let me in. I’m out of air. The nearest Assist Team is probably 50 yards away. That’s nothing if ship’s in orbit. But when that 50 yards is pitch-fucking-black and twisted like a snake with a broken back… they’ll never make it in time. I’m too weighted with gear and too far down to attempt an emergency ascent. In desperation, I refrain from swallowing. Typically, this action seals the glottis and allows pressure to build in the lungs. “Always exhale before trying to inhale,” says the rule book. I’m hoping beyond hope there might be just a few more breaths in there somewhere, and I fight down panic, forcing myself to keep my lungs at mid-volume. Hoping. Waiting. But the doubt creeps in.
And so I raise my eyes again to the shimmering apparition before me, telling myself again that it isn’t real. It can’t be.
I haven’t seen the Shimmer Man since I was nine years old, but I’d recognize it anywhere. For a thousand nights after that first encounter, I tried in vain to recreate what I had seen with my colored pencils and pens, hiding under a blanket in my room till all hours with a flashlight, but without success. Every time I had a headache, no matter how slight, I looked around for the Shimmer Man, but I never saw him again. Why here? And why now?
Nitrogen narcosis. High partial pressures of carbon dioxide. Pulmonary Oxygen Toxicity. Central Nervous System Toxicity. Gamma radiation poisoning. Sure and sudden death. Drowning. The tremendous pressure of the ocean. A host of problems seeking me out, as I cower in this darkened wreck full of dead bodies on the cold sea floor. That’s why I get paid the big bucks.
And then I can hear the sound of Perfect Tommy’s digitized laugh. “Bet I whip your ass in checkers again.” Hiss. “Sure you will, cheatin’ bastard.” Hiss. I see all the weekends spent at his house on the beach, playing with his kids, and keeping my eyes off his wife. Like any good friend would do.
I stopped focusing on the grim facts and concentrated instead on the glowing apparition before me. “…let go… return to surface….” This thing, this creature of light is speaking to me in soft broken phrases, but the meaning is crystal clear. It’s time to go.
First, I have to purge my suit.
Of course, there’s no way I’ll be able to follow the Shimmer Man to where ever it is we’re supposed to go with all this equipment on. Ignoring the flashing depth gauges, and struggling against the depleted heliox for every breath, I reach up and begin to open the top-mounted helium double exhaust valve on my DESCO 9 Commercial Diving Helmet, and begin working my face free of the chin button, which allows me to regulate my exhaust and control my buoyancy without using my hands.
My heart is pounding, and all I can think about is the water that’s going to rush in and the terrible pressure that will shove the last breath of life from my lungs.
“What the hell’s he doing?!?”
“I can’t tell! He’s just… kneeling in… Passageway 4… outside Engineering near the Bouncer shaft. He’s just staring at a blank bulkhead, I don’t– oh, Jesus….”
“What?!?” Cappy’s face is contorted, the face of calm control is gone.
“He’s trying to take off his helmet.”
Cappy snatched up the mic again. “Coffee!” he shouted into the mic. “Do not take your fucking rig off, Coffee! You hear me?!? Whatever you’re seeing isn’t real! Get it together, son! We can get you out of there! Hang on!” He slams a hand down on a large red button on the console before him, and throughout the cramped quarters of the dive pod, a blaring klaxon wailed.
“Goddamnit, where’s the Bouncer?!?”
“On the way down, 30 seconds!”
A second flashing red light appears on a control panel, and sirens begin to wail. The pressure in my suit begins to drop rapidly.
“Assist Team! Move on Coffee now! Move it!” Cappy’s anguished voice fills the SCF, and desperation grips him in the pit of his stomach.
“Coffee! It’s Tommy!” P.T.’s voice, wrapped in warm echoes, comes to me. He’s safe and sound in the Bouncer. Such beautiful children, a loving wife. He’s fine. He’ll be fine. Looks like we won’t get that last game, though. Pity. “Hang on, man! We’ll get you out of there! Wait! Wait for me, Coffee, please! Wait! What the hell are you doing?!? Wait! Coffee–” The water is absolute cold, and pounds against my head, turning it inside out with blows from a giant hammer. And there is nothing else.
The Shimmer Man smiles at me with infinite patience, one hand extended and waiting for mine. As I turn around, I see the jagged lights of the Assist Team moving as fast as they can down the darkened passageway, skidding to a halt when they see that my lack of a head will more than likely prevent any resuscitative efforts. The bright beams twirl like fingertips in red paint, stirring infinite patterns. I feel bad for them, having to find me this way. “It’s okay, guys. I’m fine. I’m here.” I want to reassure them. I can see them gesturing to each other, and I know they’re talking to the Shoreside Control Facility, delivering the news. They’re going to take it hard. But it will pass. Everything does.
The Shimmer Man smiles at me again with infinite patience, one hand extended and waiting for mine. And there is nothing else.