There are two things I'm afraid of in this world – sharks, and earthquakes.
The fear of earthquakes is a new thing. That started back in 2018, when an eight-point-one opened up the Esfahan desert and swallowed a GeoCo drilling rig whole. Oh, they'll tell you it wasn't the earthquake that opened up the dunes and sucked 89 men screaming and burning into the sand. They'll tell you that GeoCo was culpable. That the gas extraction had made the shale beds unstable and the earthquake had simply hurried things along.
Only seven of us survived that day, and all of us can testify that the quake hadn't simply 'hurried things along.' The ignition of the well had been instantaneous, I'll grant you that, and the fireball that ripped through the rig turned the bulk of it to charcoal in less than a minute. But it had taken almost a day for the groaning, heaving mass of metal to submerge into sand that had suddenly turned to water.
I don't remember the pain. I remember the bleeding and the burning, the clothes torn from my body by the blast, the sand and the blood that crusted over every exposed inch of skin. But mostly I remember the noise. The flames. The billows of black smoke as the rig went down, a modern-day Titanic disappearing into dry land.
It's been ten years since the Esfahan tried to swallow me whole, but I still dream about it. Night-sweat reminders of burning and shrieking and the earth twisting like an animal beneath my feet. Which is why, when the Seascape bucked and rumbled ominously that cold November morning, I found myself propelled half-asleep from my bunk, blinking and disoriented and trying my damndest not to scream.
I had ten seconds to drag on my clothes and assess what was going on outside the tiny steel-plated bunkroom – the tremors beneath my feet, the roar that sounded high above the wind outside, the echo of high waves slapping hard against Seascape's pylons – before the amber alert klaxon froze me in my tracks. Seconds later O'Shea's voice scratched from the loudspeakers. 'All crew to storm stations,' he repeated in quick succession as I grabbed my jacket and exited the bunkroom. 'All crew to storm stations.'
The rig shuddered as I half-ran, half-slid down the gantry stairs, and there was a dull screech of metal on metal as the platform was slowly inched above the waves. I heard the storm anchors thunk into deep water as I fumbled into my jacket, the klaxon continuing its screech as I skirted the empty helipad and made my way to the Super's office.
'Jackson!' Hooper bellowed as I entered the office, cheeks burning from the sprint through the cold Atlantic wind. 'I need you to get us into shutdown.'
'Storm?' I tossed my hardhat onto the nearest bench and squinted out at the early morning sky.
'You wish.' Hooper glanced at O'Shea. 'The damn Navy lost a torpedo.'
'What?' For the first time I looked at the ocean. Really looked at it. 'Those aren't normal waves.' I moved closer to the window. 'What kind of torpedo did the Navy lose, exactly?'
'Something called a 'gyropedo,' Hooper responded impatiently.
Waves churned far below the platform, set off a churning in my gut. 'And what was the payload?'
Hooper slumped silently into a chair.
'Frank?' I turned to look at him. 'Did the Navy tell you what was in that missile?'
Hooper closed his eyes and scrubbed at his face. 'It was a nuclear device.'
'You heard me,' he shot out, the rapid-fire response underscoring his anger and frustration. 'I'm just hoping it didn't puncture the gas field.'
I returned my gaze to the still-boiling ocean. 'Jesus Christ.'
'You look a bit rough.'
'Thanks.' I shunted over to make room for Kravitz at the mess table. 'I didn't hit the hay until 4am, remember.'
'I heard.' Kravitz slid his tray onto the table and pulled up a chair beside me. 'How's Simpson?'
'Haven't had word from Halifax yet,' I said around the mash in my mouth, 'but it didn't look good.' Understatement of the century. Simpson had been working the night crew when a drive belt snapped and carved a chunk of meat from his thigh twelve inches across. Most of his blood had already hit the deck by the time I got there, the chopper flight to Halifax more to salve the Super's conscience than to salvage any flesh that Simpson had lost.
'And now this.' I shook my head and waved around the subdued mess hall with my fork. 'Battle stations.'
'Hardly,' Kravitz snorted. 'Although,' he leaned towards me and lowered his voice, 'Hooper and O'Shea have advised they'll be keeping me company on the night watch.'
I turned to gauge Kravitz's narrow features. 'It's been ten hours since the hit,' I said carefully. 'If the field was going to blow, it would have blown by now.'
'Trust me,' he continued tightly. 'Hooper has a sixth sense about these things.'
One thing was for sure – I didn't have a sixth sense about these things. I was always caught off-guard, genuinely surprised when things turned to shit. I dropped the fork to my plate. 'We've only just got production back online. If Hooper has any concerns, he needs to let me know.'
'All I'm sayin' is,' Kravitz kept his voice low, 'I wouldn't get outta those clothes tonight, if I was you.'
At oh-four-hundred-hours, with a gale rising over the choppy sea and veins of ice silvering the frozen edges of the rig, Frank Hooper's sixth sense came roaring into reality.
A series of loud explosions broke through the pre-dawn, rattled the windows in their steel casings and punctured my half-sleep like rifle shots. I opened my eyes to booming darkness, rolled from the bunk and pressed my face against the frosted cabin window. I inhaled on ice and held it in my chest, listened as doors banged open and voices called out frantically in the night. Silently the rig moved, a series of quiet jolts as the supports one-by-one lost their footing and pierced through the ocean floor.
I let go my breath as the rig heaved again, the night shattered by another series of explosions that sent shock waves coursing unseen across the sea to slam hard against the eastern edge of the platform. Light bloomed beyond the ice-rimed window and I swung open the cabin door, joined the crew on the deck to watch a pillar of fire rise two hundred feet out of the black sea.
'What's going on,' somebody asked as the rig quaked around us. 'End of the world,' said someone else, as a million years of fermented shale ignited in one explosion after another and lined the crew's upturned faces in shades of violet and pink and blue.
I glanced at the makeshift bunk Hooper had set up in the office as he barked a series of orders in my direction.
'…halt production, and get the drill crew into their safety gear…'
My eyes flickered across the room, lined up O'Shea and Kravitz's worried faces in my peripheral vision.
'…International Rescue will be here in two hours…'
'Whoa,' I said, all my attention back on Hooper's strained expression. 'International Rescue? Is this an evac situation? Because if it is – '
'Calm down,' he replied. 'The rig's stable, but International Rescue reckon they can plug that gas leak – '
'Yeah,' O'Shea cut in. 'They're worried that if the field blows it'll set off a tidal wave across the whole Atlantic.'
'I'm more worried,' Hooper resumed gruffly, 'that if it does blow, it'll take Seascape out with it.'
Kravitz opened his mouth thoughtfully, but Hooper silenced him with a glare. 'So what I need for you to do, Jackson, is get this rig into total shutdown, and be ready in case we have to evacuate.'
'You understand that the 'copter can't make it back from Halifax in this weather.' I needed to be sure Hooper knew we were on our own out here.
'We know,' O'Shea replied. 'We're sending out an alert to all vessels in the area.'
I should've known O'Shea would be onto it. I tugged at the zipper of my jacket as I headed for the door.
'Jackson,' Hooper called out as I left the office. 'I want you to meet International Rescue on the helipad. You're the welcome wagon.'
Despite the wind and the waves and the bone-numbing cold, in the dark hours before dawn the crew managed to bring the Seascape level. By the time the morning broke pale and grey and International Rescue coasted slowly in a hundred feet above the sea, the helipad waited like a flat black mirror, damp and glinting in the icy Atlantic air.
I think I expected someone a bit more like me. Someone older. Rougher around the edges. Someone who'd done a bit of living and seen their fair share. What I didn't expect was the baby-faced cock-of-the-walk that exited Thunderbird One with a barely-contained grin on his face.
He leapt neatly out of the forward hatch and stood for a moment in the wind, sizing up the rig, sizing up the column of fire that flared from the ocean at my back. The smile on his lips faded as he strode across the deck, the rig jolting in tiny shuddering bursts beneath us.
'Alan,' he introduced as he extended his hand. 'Are you the rig Super?'
'No.' I squeezed the warm hand and let it drop away. 'Phil Jackson, Operations Engineer.' I nodded towards the nearby stairs. 'Hooper's waiting in the office.'
'Great.' He took a step back as a gust of wind whistled across the helipad and knocked the cap from his head, released a shock of blond hair into the gale. 'Great,' he said again as he followed the cap back towards Thunderbird One, scooped it up and tossed it carelessly into the open hatch. With an economy of movement he touched an adjacent panel and opened up a cavity in the belly of the rocket, called casually over his shoulder: 'I'm going to need some help with this equipment.'
International Rescue might employ kids, but it was all cool, calm and efficient after that.
After Alan had set up in the office and Hooper sent me off with a quick nod of the head, I joined the crew at the rails, stomach grumbling from not making breakfast, but hell, nothing was going to keep me from seeing International Rescue in action.
'There!' someone called out as a number of arms lifted in unison, fingers aimed excitedly towards the western horizon. A dark speck parted the clouds, was obscured by rising mist, emerged from grey veils to reflect the morning sun and was swallowed again by cloud.
'Man, how fast do you think that thing is going?'
Voices rose as the dark speck emerged from the mist and streaked through an unbroken patch of blue.
'Must be a thousand miles an hour!'
'Don't be a moron.'
Sun glinted from the approaching craft as the voices around me rose in pitch. I leaned forward against the rail, screwed up my eyes and squinted into the distance. It couldn't be moving at two thousand miles an hour, but the speck had somehow covered the distance from the horizon to the rig in two minutes flat, the soaring aircraft unexpectedly revealing itself to be a big green barrel with wings. The craft slowed abruptly, the engines powering down as it descended out of the clouds at a more acceptable pace.
More crew piled onto the deck and clambered excitedly onto the gantry above. I surveyed the scene, made sure nobody was poised to fall a hundred feet into the sea, toyed briefly with asserting my authority and dispersing the eager crowd, then decided what the hell, it wasn't every day that you had a front row seat for International Rescue. And I had to admit, I was as excited as the rest of them as the big barrel carefully circuited the fire jet. The slow pass sent up a roar from the crew as it passed between the rig and the flame, the words 'Thunderbird Two' emblazoned across her jungle green hull. I found myself smiling, grinning like a kid at Christmas as the aircraft found a sweet spot over the ocean, activated her VTOLs and dropped her belly smack into the water.
There wasn't much that could shut up the jostling men around me, but for a split second, as that big green bird separated and sent its centre section into freefall, all mouths on the rig hung silently open. The sound of the hull hitting the waves carried perceptibly over the ocean and incited another excited roar from the assembled crew.
Devoid of its belly, Thunderbird Two slowly drifted a safe distance from the fire jet and hovered in the stiff wind. I craned my neck and stared up wide-eyed in amazement – the thing defied all the rules of aerodynamics, yet there she was, defying even gravity. I shook my head in disbelief.
'I wonder if they could use a medic?'
'And I was just wondering,' I smiled as Adrian Lim squeezed in beside me, 'if they have an age limit. You,' I made room for him at the rail, 'are probably just right.'
'Don't give me hope.'
'I'm serious,' I said. 'You should see the guy that flew in on Thunderbird One.' I jerked a thumb to where the silver craft rested on the helipad. 'Twenty if he was a day.'
'Yeah?' Lim's eyes lit up.
'Yeah.' I leant my elbows on the guard rail. 'Interesting show.' I nodded towards the green hangar drifting in the ocean.
Lim curled his gloved hands around the metal railing. 'Simpson's going to make it.'
'That's great news,' I said.
'Yeah.' He was quiet for a moment as the door of the hanger dropped open and slapped audibly into the sea. 'The leg might have to come off, though.'
I said nothing as a yellow DSV exited the bobbing hangar, towing what had to be some kind of shut-off valve. Another wave of exited chatter drifted through the crew.
'There was just too much muscle loss,' Lim continued, genuinely gutted. He'd been a field medic in the Singapore National Guard, but I doubt he'd seen the kinds of injuries that crewing on a rig presented. I know for sure he'd never seen anything like the injuries Simpson had sustained when the meat had been flayed clean from his thigh. I'd thought I was going to lose my lunch when Lim had arrived on the scene and quietly upchucked into a corner.
'I don't know what to tell you,' I said as the yellow submarine disappeared into the churning ocean. 'Shit happens.'
Lim's fingers opened and closed on the rail. 'I just wish I could've done more.'
'Don't beat yourself up.' I straightened and placed a hand on his shoulder. 'The poor guy had bled out by the time any of us got there. It's thanks to you and Epps that Simpson is even alive.'
I shook the slight shoulder in what I hoped was a reassuring manner. 'You gotta understand...this business takes its toll.'
'I know,' he nodded again, thoughts unreadable behind the dark eyes. It was on record that Lim had been dishonourably discharged from the Guard in 2026, and so far he'd never told anybody why.
'You gotta toughen up,' I continued, stating the damn obvious.
He looked sideways at me, eyes lingering on the scars that snaked beneath my collar and twisted their way up my throat. 'One day you'll have to tell me how you got those.'
'Sure,' I smiled. 'One day.'
'Just not today, right?'
'Right.' I stared at the swirling patch of ocean where the yellow DSV had gone down. 'You'd better hope they shut that that thing off. With Epps in Halifax with the chopper, you're the only medic left on deck.'
He took a moment to digest that statement. 'You really think they can shut it off?'
'It's beyond anything we're capable of. Then again,' I looked up pointedly at the floating green giant, 'so's that.'
Lim shoved his hands into his pockets, stamped his feet in the cold and watched the water silently. I rested my elbows on the rail and stared at the plume of flame where it rose sparking from the sea. Around us the men grew antsy and impatient. Bored. Some of them drifted away and clattered noisily down the gangway, even the spectacle of International Rescue not enough to keep them from a late breakfast. The plume sputtered noisily, sent one last boom echoing across the ocean, then abruptly went out.
I straightened at the rail, stared incredulous at the calming sea. It can't have been that easy.
Nothing's ever that easy.
'Jackson!' Hooper called out as I entered the office. 'Can you believe it? What an outfit!'
'Very impressive,' I congratulated, shaking Alan's hand. 'We can't thank you and your organisation enough.'
'No problem.' Alan grinned indulgently, the self-satisfaction I'd witnessed on the helipad settling easily onto his lips. 'Glad to be of service.'
'Well,' I took off my hard hat, 'if you hadn't come along when you did, we'd have been evacuating the rig by now.'
'Like I said, glad to be of service.' The grin widened. 'I'll be out of your hair as soon as I dismantle my gear.'
'Sure. I'll help you cart it out to your, er, Thunderbird One.'
'As soon as you're done there, Jackson,' Hooper interrupted, 'let's see about getting production back online.'
'Frank...' I fingered the hat in my hand. 'I think we should give it twenty-four hours before we engage the riser again. How do we know… '
I closed my mouth. An awkward silence settled over the office as Alan paused in the dismantling of his mobile workstation.
'I mean,' I turned to him apologetically, 'I have to be prepared for all contingencies. It's my job.'
'I understand.' He lifted an arm and brought his wristwatch to his mouth. 'International Rescue from Seascape. Brains,' he said into the dial, raising every eyebrow in the room. 'The Operations Engineer needs to know if it's safe to resume production.'
There was a burst of static as a small voice sputtered tinnily from the wristwatch and floated disembodied across the room. 'Y-yes, Alan. Thunderbird Four reports that the, ah, fire has been extinguished and that the breach is, ah, securely capped.'
'Thanks, Brains,' Alan's eyes locked onto mine as his hand dropped to his side. 'Is that good enough for you?'
I glanced at Hooper and O'Shea, glimpsed Kravitz hovering anxiously in the background. 'Not really.' The hat in my hand suddenly felt like it was made of lead. 'Who exactly was that?'
'Our scientific advisor,' Alan enunciated slowly. He wasn't used to this kind of doubt, of his organisation being second-guessed. He was the hero – the love 'em and leave 'em kind. And I'd made the mistake of interrupting him while he was rushing out the door.
'And he's the expert on everything, is he?' I asked, the words coming out a little harder than they needed to.
'He is.' The blue eyes turned to steel.
'Why do you have to question him, Phil? International Rescue saved our asses.'
'Because,' I turned on O'Shea, 'we can't afford to take risks.' I pointed towards the now-calm sea. 'That field blows, and it takes us out with it. All of us.'
'But it isn't going to blow, is it,' Hooper said. 'International Rescue have capped the breach, the fire is extinguished, and we can resume normal operations. Right?' He looked from me to Alan. 'Right?'
Alan nodded confidently. 'FAB,' he said, as if that was meant to mean something. 'This area is now secure.'
I stared down the cold barrel of his gaze.
'Well then,' Hooper said, 'let's get this baby operational!'
I glanced over and caught Kravitz's eye, wondered where Hooper's sixth sense had gone.
I bitched inwardly as my stomach rumbled. Not only had I missed breakfast, but it looked like I would be missing lunch as well. Not that the company cared. All they cared about was the production schedule, and how many metric ton of gas wasn't hitting the east coast on time. I didn't blame Hooper for having a rocket up his ass. But I did blame him for failing to follow protocol, for forcing my hand and pushing the system into overdrive.
'Jurgens.' I looked up from the operations console. 'Pressure's still a bit high.'
'That'll pass when we pop this baby open,' came the heavily accented reply.
I bent over the gauges. 'Temperature's a bit high as well.'
Jurgens wiped the sweat from his face and stared appraisingly at the wellhead. 'Riser's working fine. I can't explain the temperature increase.'
I frowned as the gauge inched higher.
'Do you want us to keep going?' The deep voice cut through my concentration.
'No.' I wiped a hand across my upper lip. 'Shut it off.'
'Shut it off?' Jurgens glanced to where Howard had downed tools and stood blandly hitching his pants.
'Shut it off!' I barked at the two of them.
'Alright,' Jurgens said, 'but you know what Hooper will say.'
'I don't give a damn what Hooper says.' I unzipped my jacket and let a wave of cool air slide beneath the thermal padding. 'The field's unstable and I'm not taking any… ' My words died as the rig moved silently beneath my feet. I turned to look at Jurgens. 'Did you feel that?'
He nodded slowly. 'I think it's stopped.'
The floor lurched suddenly, knocked the well deck sideways and sent us scrambling crazily for the nearest handhold. I clung to the console as a familiar booming echoed once more across the ocean.
'Shit!' I lunged for the internal phone, waited for the series of clicks that took me through to the office. 'Hooper? What's going on?'
'Jackson.' Hooper paused briefly. 'The field's ruptured again.'
'Same position as before?'
'Negative. This one is eight miles east of the first and eight miles closer.'
'This is bad, Hooper.'
'I don't need you to tell me how bad it is,' he snapped.
'I am telling you how bad it is. We've got increased pressure in the wellhead and the core temperature's going through the roof.'
Another patch of dead air. I could almost hear Hooper's face pinching in the silence.
'They're not coming,' he finally said.
'Who's not coming?'
'International Rescue. They feel that normal rescue methods are adequate.'
I felt my lip curl. 'You mean they've screwed us over.'
'Give 'em a break, Jackson.'
I slammed my fist into the console. 'They've fucking screwed us over!' I took a deep breath and pressed two fingers to my forehead, listened to Hooper breathing heavily down the line.
'The Navy's sending helijets,' Hooper's voice echoed dully through the handset, 'but they won't be here for another couple of hours.'
'So we're abandoning the rig?'
'That's an affirmative. Shut it down. Permanently.'
I dropped the phone into its cradle and looked up at Jurgens' and Howard's pale faces. 'Initiate kill procedure.'
'Kill procedure?' Howard breathed, unbelieving.
The disbelief was echoed in Jurgens' voice. 'Are you kidding me?'
I shook my head. 'We've got two hours to cap this well and prepare for evacuation.'
'The field's ruptured.' I tried hard to keep the anger from my voice. 'International Rescue may have capped the breach, but they didn't extinguish the fire.' I watched as realisation bloomed in their eyes. 'That flame's been looking for the weakest spot in the field ever since.' I indicated the wellhead behind me and stated the fucking obvious. 'If the latest eruption doesn't relieve the pressure, that's probably the next weakest point.'
'Shit.' Howard's round face glistened with sweat. 'We'd better move our asses.'
'Right.' Jurgens took up position near the head as Howard deftly connected the mud hose. 'Secure,' he called out after a few turns of his wrench.
'Check the pressure,' Jurgens prompted as I hunkered over the instrument panel.
'No change,' I shouted over the chugging of the pump as mud poured into the core shaft.
'Watch that connection,' Jurgens instructed Howard before coming to stand at the console. 'How long are we going to give it?'
'When the pressure starts to drop I figure we can set the BOP to override, and then we're outta here.'
Jurgens studied the pressure relays. 'Let me know as soon as – ' He closed his mouth as the rig jolted again. The grey eyes locked silently onto mine.
'Boss?' Howard called from across the deck. 'The mud's stopped flowing.'
No… My eyes locked onto the pressure gauge.
'Clear the deck!' I roared as the rig heaved violently, tilted abruptly thirty degrees and sent us flailing across the steel flooring. The upheaval separated the mud hose from the head, sprayed a jet of freezing fluid through the air as Howard flailed for a handhold on the riser, missed his grip and slid uncontrolled across the floor. Jurgens pitched towards me off-balance, hands grappling for purchase on the console as I toppled backwards, grasping on to his clothing as I slipped out of control.
There was a loud screech of metal on metal, steel groaning in protest, and I watched disbelieving as the chain supporting the hose snapped and whipped in slow motion through the mud-spattered air. I lifted my arm as the chain curled unbound towards me, choked back a shout as the fractured edge ripped through my glove and sliced coldly through the palm of my hand, barely slowing as it continued on its path towards the engineer beside me.
'Jurgens!' I called out, the warning coming too late as the rusted metal collided full force with his skull, sliced through his skin and separated the meat clean from the centre of his forehead. Jurgens crumpled and fell, fresh bone gleaming in the frigid air, blood oozing slowly from the torn skin and floating like water on top of the muddy deck.
Explosions sounded from the sea as I crawled my way across the tilted deck. The booming was closer than before, doubled in volume and intensity. It sounded as though there were two fire jets now, two burning points of flame rising uncontrolled out of the ocean.
'Easy,' I said as I settled beside Jurgens, raised his head from the mud and rested it in my lap. 'It's not the worst I've seen.'
Jurgens' lips trembled mutely, face white as the blood drained slowly through the gaping wound in his scalp.
'Medic's on his way,' Howard announced as he slid across the deck towards us. He squatted beside me and murmured quietly, 'the BOP hasn't engaged,' then placed a hand on Jurgens' chest. 'You'll be okay, buddy,' he said shakily, trying desperately to avoid looking at the top of Jurgens' exposed skull and the crumpled flap of hair and skin that bunched glistening at the top of his head. 'It's gonna be okay.'
'Here.' I transferred Jurgens' head from my lap to Howard's and stood, grabbed a rag and wrapped it around my bleeding palm. I sucked in air as the oil-soaked cloth settled into the open wound.
Howard looked up as the air hissed from my lungs. 'How bad?'
I shook my head. 'It's nothing.'
He stared at me sceptically, the blood seeping through the rag enough to tell us both otherwise.
'It's a matter of time before the gas gets past the first stage.' Howard looked down as Jurgens' eyes rolled back and his eyelids fluttered shut. 'And then she'll blow.'
I cradled my arm close to my body and leant back against the listing console, acutely aware that three miles below our feet, forty square miles of gas was trying to percolate its way to the surface. I increased the pressure on my throbbing hand. 'We need to get the blowout preventer online,' I grunted through the stinging pain. 'As soon as Lim arrives – '
'I'm here,' Adrian announced as he dropped a stretcher and medpac beside me. He took one look at the top of Jurgens' head, bent double and quietly splashed my boots with the remains of his lunch.
'Jesus, Lim.' I swallowed as the tang of vomit met my nostrils.
'Sorry, Phil.' Lim snapped on a pair of gloves and gently lifted the injured man's head from Howard's lap. Together they manoeuvred Jurgens onto the stretcher, Lim quickly swaddling the injury in bandages.
'You'd better get him to look at your hand, too,' Howard came to stand beside me.
'I told you it's fine.' I returned my attention to the console, smacked it hard with my good hand. 'This fucking thing is useless. We've got no way of – '
The deck convulsed violently, cutting me off mid-sentence. Lim threw himself over Jurgens as equipment rained down around us. 'What the hell's happening?'
'I'll tell you what's happening,' I hissed through my teeth. 'This entire rig is cascading into total and catastrophic failure.'
Lim sat back on his heels as the deck trembled into silence. 'What does that mean?'
My eyes slid to the wellhead. For all we knew, the gas was already bubbling up three miles of pipe, pushing the mud we'd pumped down in a thick slurry ahead of it. When it came, it would come boiling out of the riser, poisoning us with the hydrogen sulphide stench of rotten eggs before igniting and incinerating our convulsing bodies right where we stood.
Ah, hell, no point sugar-coating the obvious. 'It means, Adrian, that this whole thing is going to blow.'
Lim looked like he was going to throw up again. 'What are we going to do?' he asked, brown eyes widening.
I chewed hard at the inside of my lip and stared at the riser.
The rig canted again, listed even more towards the sea.
'Adrian,' I said, 'we need to get Jurgens to the evacuation point. Those choppers will be here soon and I want him on the first evac.'
Lim busied himself preparing Jurgens for transport while I attempted to revive the busted console. 'Damn piece of crap is completely offline,' I said, for nobody's benefit but my own. 'Howard,' I called over my shoulder, 'you'd better get to the helideck.'
'Phil.' Howard fingered the wrench in his hand. 'I think I can get the blowout preventer online.'
I glanced up sharply. 'I can't even get a reading from this thing.'
'But the office console might still be functioning.' Howard's eyes widened meaningfully.
I studied him carefully. 'Are you offering to stay behind?'
'Not for long,' he smiled crookedly. 'Just 'til I get the BOP operational.'
I grinned gratefully and reached for the walkie at my belt. 'Hooper,' I broadcast on the restricted band. 'We've lost the wellhead console. I need a pressure reading now.'
I slammed back against the panel as the rig lurched another few feet to the left, followed by a loud explosion and the hard screech of metal on metal.
'Was that explosion on the platform?' Lim hunkered protectively over the stretcher. 'Was it on the platform?'
'Hooper, do you read me?' I avoided the panic in Lim's eyes as the rig bucked again beneath our feet.
'Jackson.' Kravitz's voice emerged unexpectedly from the handheld. 'You'd better get up here.'
'Kravitz?' I popped my finger off the transmit button, listened as silence filled the air.
'Hooper and O'Shea have gone down in the bell,' Kravitz said finally, with all the solemnity of delivering a death sentence.
Jesus Christ. My fingers tightened on the walkie as the utter stupidity of that course of action hit home.
'They wanted to check the integrity of the supports,' Kravitz's tiny voice floated shakily out of the speaker in my hand.
'That's no fucking excuse!' I exploded. 'Kravitz, listen. I want that diving bell back on deck.'
Silence again. I could well imagine the internal wrestling that was going on inside Kravitz right now. Orders from the Rig Super versus orders from the angry Operations Engineer. But with the captain and the first mate off the boat, so to speak, then that left the engineer in charge.
'Kravitz?' I broadcast again. 'Did you hear me?
'Jackson.' There was a slight tremor in his voice. 'I can't get them back on deck.'
'Kravitz.' I clamped my thumb on the transmit button. 'I don't have time for this. As soon as I'm done here I'll head to the office and we can get this well into lockdown. In the meantime,' I repeated angrily, 'I want Hooper and O'Shea back on deck.'
We emerged from the well deck into pure chaos. The rig shook violently as we moved unsteadily towards the gantry, the damage on the collapsing superstructure far more than I had expected. Beyond the storage cylinders I could see two plumes of violet-blue flame rise sputtering from the sea, the sparking eruptions far too close for comfort. Way too close.
Lim pulled the stretcher up abruptly and shouted back at me over the rising wind. 'The gantry is blocked. We'll have to take the upper deck.'
Shit. That meant stairs, and manoeuvring a stretcher around a lot of tight corners.
'Lead the way,' I shouted at the back of his head and wrapped my freezing fingers tight around the pallet handles. The weight of the stretcher pressed painfully against the gash in my hand, sent fresh blood seeping through the rag and what was left of my glove as we moved jaggedly across the heaving deck, Jurgens bouncing indelicately on the pallet between us.
Ahead of us I could see stragglers in their safety vests. Dribs and drabs making their way towards the same evacuation point as we moved along the edge of the sea deck, all of us balanced precariously between the sinking platform and the churning ocean below. I could see the blockage Lim had spotted, the source of the explosion we had heard earlier. The crane had buckled and slipped from its housings, lay dangling over the edge of the platform like a wilted vine. The mass of twisted metal had severed the entire sea deck almost in two and dragged down most of the upper deck with it. The collapse must have sent the diving bell straight to the bottom of the sea.
No wonder Kravitz's voice had been shaking.
Lim glanced over his shoulder. 'You okay?' He misread my apprehension as he indicated the narrow metal stairway ahead of us. 'This won't be easy.'
'Give me a minute,' I said. My eyes followed the line of the collapsed crane, the slack cable that ran uselessly into the dark sea below. I imagined Hooper and O'Shea inside the tiny inspection bell, overwhelmed by the weight of debris and the crushing sea. Or worse. Trapped alive with no hope of rescue, and their oxygen running out.
A spattering of rain sprinkled in off the sea, settled salt on my lips.
'Move it!' I groused as Lim and I waded our way through the crowd that had assembled at the helipad. The crew parted haphazardly, voices quieted by the stretcher that we carried, eyes searching to see who it was beneath the blood-spattered bandages. I ignored the worried stares, the wide-eyed expressions of men finding themselves unexpectedly on the edge.
I set down the stretcher and turned away from the curious faces, caught another glimpse of the fire jets that erupted beyond the edge of the rig. The tang of sulphur carried on the wind, mingled with the green stench of kelp.
'What now?' Lim asked.
'The Navy choppers will be here soon,' I said. 'I want you to oversee – '
I broke off as the platform bucked again beneath us, more violent than before. I braced my feet against another sudden jolt.
'Phil?' Lim ventured as he teetered off-balance and the crew silenced around us. 'What's happening?'
'I don't know,' I murmured.
There was a loud crack as a fireball erupted close by the platform and rolled slowly into the sky.
'What the hell was that?' The crew erupted in panic, a hundred and nineteen voices rising terrified into the air as a third fire jet burst into life, another pillar of fire dancing brightly on the ocean. I turned my face away from the glare and the wave of heat that seared the moisture from my cheeks.
'Phil.' A hand grasped my arm. 'The helijets are here.'
The high-pitched whine of a turbine reached my ears, my eyes catching on a lone dark speck rising on the far horizon. The panicked chatter around me slowed and faltered into silence, picked back up in muted tones of confusion. I squinted into the glare as the silver arrow of Thunderbird One pierced through the mist and cut a ragged swathe through the fast-moving cloud.
'I thought they weren't coming,' I said into the wind, irritation twisting my lips. My hands curled into fists, the wound on my palm releasing a single drop of blood that splashed heavily to the deck. My eyes followed the aircraft as she coasted in over the sea, wobbling slightly as the wind lifted and dropped her. 'They said they weren't coming!'
Lim looked down at my bunched fists and reached towards me. 'Maybe it's time I took a look at that hand.'
I pulled away from his outstretched arm. 'Evacuate the injured first, and then hang around until you're sure nobody else needs medical attention.'
I looked up as Thunderbird One passed between the rig and the pale winter sun, cast a fleeting shadow across my eyes. 'Send him down to the office when he lands. He knows where it is.'
'What are you doing here?' I bellowed across the office, forcing Alan to pull up abruptly with his hover dolly. 'You promised us that field was stable,' I continued, voice rising. 'You and your 'expert' guaranteed the fire was out!'
He'd lost none of his cockiness from earlier in the day, the smooth jaw setting stubbornly as he began unloading his equipment. 'With all due respect, Mr Jackson, I'm here to oversee the rescue of Hooper and O'Shea from that diving bell.'
'With all due respect,' I parroted back at him, 'if you people hadn't interfered in the first place, Hooper and O'Shea wouldn't need rescuing!'
That stung him. The pink lips tightened and a wave of doubt passed across the baby face.
'Seascape is going down and I want your ship off my rig.' I gestured angrily to where Thunderbird One gleamed dully in the afternoon light. 'I need that helipad clear for the Navy.'
Alan rolled an office chair towards his console. 'There's plenty of room for a good pilot to manoeuvre on the helipad.'
It took all I had not to punch the smug bastard right in the face, but I gained some satisfaction in the way he steadfastly avoided my glare as he went about powering up his equipment. I had to hand it to him – the kid had balls, setting up shop on a sinking ship.
'That's what you get for trusting kids,' I muttered to Kravitz as I leaned over to check the core pressure. 'Shit.' I toggled a series of relays. 'Pressure's still rising.'
'I'm sure we can help,' Alan volunteered as he settled his headset into place. 'We have experts – '
'We don't have the time for any more of International Rescue's experts,' I replied as a loud boom set the rig shaking and rattled the office windows. 'Just take care of Hooper and O'Shea and get your ass out of here.'
'Don't worry,' Alan said confidently as his mobile console pinged into life. 'We'll get them out.'
'I wish I could believe that,' I replied as the first Navy helijet passed overhead and came slowly in to land. 'I don't want either of you hanging around here any longer than you have to.'
Kravitz relocated from the radio console to the main panel. 'Where are you going?'
'I need to oversee the lockdown.' I grabbed a couple of life vests from the equipment locker, tossed one across the room to Kravitz and raised the other questioningly towards Alan. He glanced at me over the top of his mobile console and gave a negatory shake of his head.
I stepped from the office into a hard gale, the cold front that had been threatening all day finally making its presence well and truly felt. The engines of the helijet whined deafeningly over the wind as I struggled into the lifejacket, the pitch increasing as it lifted off the pad and rose cautiously into the grey sky. I raised my eyes to follow its progress as International Rescue's big green transport coasted into view and dropped her load once more into the sea.
I raised the walkie to my lips and pressed down on the contact. 'Howard.' I waited a few seconds for a response, bit down an expletive as the speaker emitted only dead air. Shit.
I looked up at the helipad, eyes locking onto the white outline of Lim's uniform and the red cross that emblazoned itself boldly across his back.
'Adrian!' I called out as I laboured my way through the crowd of assembled men. 'Adrian!' I shouted again, raising my voice above the wind. 'Has Howard checked in?"
'Howard?' The dark eyebrows knit together as Lim turned to survey the jostling crowd. 'No.'
The platform jolted as another leg collapsed, sent the rig and crew screaming towards the sea. Abruptly the downward fall halted, sprawled us awkwardly to the deck. I heaved myself to my feet as another helijet lowered itself noisily to the pad.
'C'mon. Howard must still be on the well deck.'
Lim tucked his medpac securely under an arm and followed me down the gantry stairs. In the lee of the storage tanks the noise of the choppers was suddenly dulled, leaving us with only the whistling wind and the continued roar and boom of the fire jets.
'Are you sure Howard's still down here?' Lim panted as he skirted along the narrow walkway behind me.
'You said you didn't see him on the helideck.' The cold air burned in my nose and throat. 'You told me you didn't see him.'
Lim's footsteps clattered behind me on the convulsing walkway. If he answered me, the words were carried away on the wind.
'He has to be down here,' I said, knowing my own words had been carried away just as uselessly.
A loud crack sounded across the ocean as the fire from the newest jet increased in intensity, the heat palpable on the exposed skin of my face. The deck rolled slowly as another support gave way, bounced us another twenty feet closer to doom.
We halted on the gantry and clung tight to the guard rail, waited for the movement to subside. Lim shook his head as the rig heaved around us, lips working in his pale face, his words lost to the exploding sea. I reached out and grabbed hold of his arm, dragged him close and shouted into his ear.
'Five more minutes. Five more minutes, and then we're out of here.'
'Oh, God.' Lim's words were followed by the sound of his stomach heaving dryly into the palm of his hand.
I'd seen some bad things in my time. Fingers pulped between drive shafts, hands severed at the wrist, arms ripped bodily from screaming and wriggling torsos. I'd seen legs opened up to the bone, skin flayed from limbs, arteries and tendons exposed glistening like exotic jellies drying in the sea air. I'd seen my own body blistered by fire, watched as a whole crew burned and sank into suffocating sand. But this was the first time I'd seen a human being cut completely in two, with all his insides on the outside and the blood already congealed to pudding on the floor.
Lim retched uselessly again, and I felt my own stomach move, twisting itself into a tight knot that threatened to cascade acid into my throat. I staggered as the deck listed further towards the sea and sent debris sliding across the blood-spattered floor, shifted the intestines that had spilled from Howard's open gut and rolled his dead eyes to look towards me accusingly. I clamped my lips tight and turned from where Howard lay crushed by the fallen pipe rack, spanner still clasped tightly in his cold, white hand.
We didn't need the thunder of renewed explosions from the sea, the sound of tearing metal, or the sudden drop of the rig another twenty feet to tell us our five minutes were up. Lim and I sailed down with the deck, weightless for half a second, legs buckling beneath us when the platform halted abruptly in its downward plunge.
'Move!' I shouted over the clang of falling pipe, the ceiling groaning as the upper deck threatened to collapse in on top of us. Lim scrambled for the exit, boots sliding on the wet deck, the cuffs of his uniform staining red as blood splashed in tiny bursts beneath his footsteps. I ran hard behind him, prodded him with a hand when he slowed, bawled into his ear as I aimed him towards the gantry stairs.
We lunged up the stairs two at a time, fingers fumbling for the rail, feet slipping as the mist-slicked stairs jolted beneath our feet. I could hear the turbines of a helijet whining ahead, the tell-tale rise in pitch as it prepared to lift off.
'Move!' I bellowed again as Lim crested the lip of the stairs and came to an abrupt halt on the upper deck.
'This is fucking bullshit!' he wailed as the last helijet roared low over the top of our heads and headed out to sea. He turned to face me accusingly as I hurtled stumbling onto the deck behind him.
Beyond Lim's angry face Thunderbird One slid uncontrolled across the listing helipad, landing struts sparking as metal scraped across metal and she juddered her way down the platform towards us.
I lunged forward, slammed Lim hard to the deck as the silver rocket turned slowly on her axis, struts screeching as gravity grabbed hold of her and sucked her down towards the boiling sea. I covered my head with an arm, clamped my bad hand against the back of Lim's head and pressed his face into the metal as Thunderbird One's VTOLs engaged a split-second before she toppled over the edge and lifted her screaming into the sky.
The backwash from the VTOLs engulfed us in heat and smoke as Lim slid out from under me and limped winded along the edge of the helipad. He shouted futilely as Thunderbird One roared overhead, waved his arms stupidly in the air as he staggered unevenly along the listing deck.
He was right. This was fucking bullshit.
I rolled to my feet as the rig pitched again, the gantry we had just exited peeling away from the superstructure and crashing into the sea. There was another explosion onboard and the church-bell peel of pipe crashing onto metal. Flame erupted from the rig as the wellhead finally went up and blasted a hole clean through the deck we were standing on. The rig dropped again, knocked us heavily to our knees, brought us ever closer to the freezing Atlantic.
I unbuckled my life jacket and pushed it into Lim's arms. 'Sorry buddy, but we're going in.'
'There's something I need to tell you.' Lim clutched at the life vest and stared down at the seething water.
'Yeah?' I snatched the vest out of his hands, turned him on his heels and proceeded to stuff his arms through the orange nylon.
'That dishonourable discharge…' Lim shoulders hunched as another explosion rocked the rig.
'Adrian.' I ducked my head as a nearby storage cylinder hurtled chunks of flaming metal into the air. 'Now is not the time.'
'It was for desertion,' he continued dully, brown eyes widening as another section of platform fell away and opened up a panoramic vista of the churning Atlantic below. 'Cowardice.' He looked at me apologetically.
'Fuck that.' I grabbed him by the collar and hurled him bodily into the ocean.
If he screamed it was drowned out by the explosions at my back and the sound of debris slamming into the water. I stepped to the brink, looked down to where Lim flailed bobbing in the waves, my feet falling out from under me as the platform dropped another few feet. One second I floated in air, the next I sprawled winded on wet metal, closer still to the boiling sea. I stared up at the sky, at grey scuds of cloud that were obscured intermittently by tongues of flame. There was a flash of light in my peripheral vision, a burst of orange that made me turn, choking, on black smoke.
I'd looked into the face of this particular demon once in my life already, saved then by fate and happenstance. Now there was nothing but rushing air as fire tore through the platform in boiling shades of yellow and red, igniting memories that forked like lighting across the surface of my skin.
I closed my eyes and rolled off the edge, trusted in a freefall into pitch black water.
I came by my fear of sharks in the Gulf of Mexico, when, as a naïve toolpusher on my first-ever rig, I peered down into the warm blue depths and watched the Blacktip and the Mako tear each other to shreds.
I was a kid back then, cursed with a wide-eyed gullibility that the old hands exploited mercilessly. They would tell me tales of toolpushers who'd been blown from the scaffolding and swallowed whole by the sharks that waited patiently in the water below. Watching the smooth grey lines of the man-eaters that lurked in the shadow of the rig, I knew I never wanted to test that particular tale of dread. Yet here I was, tumbling towards deep water, waves reaching up to engulf me as I pierced the churning surface, a broken arrow in regulation workwear.
The Atlantic heaved into peaks and troughs, great waves that opened up and then folded in upon themselves, alternately drew me towards the air or sucked me down towards the depths. I opened my eyes to grey-green water, caught wild glimpses of blue sky and dark cloud and the burning hulk of Seascape looming overhead. I aimed my face towards the sky and the fractured waves above and broke the surface gasping.
'Adrian!' The word was drowned out as water rushed into my mouth, my feet kicking wildly towards the bright beacon of his life vest where it bobbed atop the waves,
'Thank God,' he stuttered between chattering teeth as I bumped up against him, wrapped my arms around his body and let the life vest support my freezing limbs. I coughed up salt and raised my eyes to where Thunderbird Two hovered in the buffeting wind.
'We have to get their attention. C'mon.' I willed my body into action and angled us away from the shadow of the rig. 'Kick!'
'It's no use.' The dark head drooped forward. 'They'll never see us.'
'Adrian,' I wheezed into his ear. 'We're not going down. Not like this.' I struggled to propel him over the waves. 'Move!'
'I can't,' he coughed, feet kicking out feebly. 'I can't feel my legs.'
'C'mon,' I urged as we moved unevenly towards open water. 'Keep kicking.' I loosed my grip and steered him ahead of me, the heaving of our lungs drowned out by the remains of Seascape still sliding into the sea. From time to time shrapnel sailed burning through the air and splashed hissing into the water around us.
'Phil.' Lim halted his laboured paddle. 'There's something down there.'
'Where?' I drifted close behind him, tried to follow his line of sight.
'Phil, shit.' He coughed again, choking on brine.
Shit was right. I drifted close behind him as a dark shadow rushed towards us from the deep.
Christ. This mother was big. I held my breath as the monster broke the surface in a whoosh of air and steam and the high pitched whine of turbines. 'Hold on,' I gasped as International Rescue's submersible rose churning from the depths and sent out a backwash that sent us tumbling over the waves.
Lim lifted an arm feebly as the sub vented her intakes, dropped it dispiritedly as the DSV swung about and aimed her nose towards Thunderbird Two. The sub lifted the diving bell dripping from the depths, raised it high above the waves as the giant green transport lumbered in, turning ungracefully on the turbulent air as she lowered a set of grabs.
'They can't see us,' Lim rasped through lips the colour of ice. 'They're not even looking.'
I swallowed another mouthful of water as Thunderbird Two lifted the bell clear of the water. 'For Christ's sake, kick!' I urged as the giant carrier swung about and moved off. 'We can still make it.' The yellow DSV drifted only fifty feet away.
'I can't...' he mumbled as the waves lifted and dropped us like a pair of wooden dolls.
'We're not dying here!' I grabbed hold of him with one hand and struck out determinedly towards the sub, kicking out with leaden feet and stroking the water in a laborious one-armed paddle as I towed Lim awkwardly behind me. The distance seemed impossible, the sub disappearing behind a wall of green each time we slid helplessly down a trough, rising from the foam like a bright mirage every time we crested the waves again.
'We are not going down,' I slurred through frozen lips as the DSV loomed abruptly from the waves. 'Not like this.' I slammed a hand against the yellow hull, clambered stiffly onto the engine mounting and heaved Lim awkwardly up beside me. 'Can you hear me, you bastards?' I howled into the wind. 'Not like this!'
I smashed a fist against the hull, pressed my forehead against the metal as the top hatch grated open with the hissing release of air.
Not like this.
My lips cracked into a half-smile as a hand reached from above and hauled me upright, my head falling limply back to look into surprised amber eyes.