By now you know the score, right? This is the novel that I wrote for last year’s NaNoWriMo. Congratulations, by the way to all the “winners” from this year’s contest.
If you haven’t done so just yet, go and read the first two chapters.
Chapter One: A Beach In Barbados
Chapter Two: In Transit, Glorious
It may not make it better, but at least it’ll make sense. Once again, as well, this is just as written; I’ve only done editing to correct obvious typos. You also get two chapters, because chapter three was genuinely quite short. Comments/thoughts/requests/offers-of-large-sacks-of-money-for-the-publishing-rights gratefully accepted.
Chapter Three: Rip, Rig & Panic
As much as Doctor Gates might have seemed like a cold fish, she was at least efficient; she wasted no time grumbling about the difficult conditions that Shoen had placed her under, instead organising her small team into an efficient work unit. For some reason, they seemed to spend most of their days taking water samples from around the rig, and then testing them for as long as they could before having to strike down their tools for meal times.
The working riggers were fed first; every time this was announced I could see a small smirk on Shoen’s face. It meant that we had to make do with either cold or slightly overcooked meals, which took a little work to stomach. Sitting down opposite an attractive short brunette, I began to eat that day’s meal, an approximation of bolognese, were bolognese made from pasta with the consistency of bicycle tires. I was rather surprised then, when she started talking to me.
“So, who are you, exactly?”, she asked.
“Heff.” I said.
“Heff? Not much of a name.”
“It’s all the name I’ve got”, I replied, growing faintly annoyed. I knew the woman in front of me was a member of Gates’ team, but I also knew that aside from Gates herself, none of them had notable security clearance, which meant I had to be particularly circumspect in what I revealed about myself. That didn’t mean that I couldn’t do some investigation of my own.
“And yourself?” I replied, smiling faintly. I knew I wasn’t much of a looker, but then I wasn’t looking to bed this particular brunette; merely extract some information from her. There were ways and means to do that kind of thing, but on an oil rig in the middle of nowhere, and no real brief to follow beyond “Track Gates”, I was willing to go down the partial charm route.
“My name’s Annabel Riker. I’m part of Doctor Gates’ team.”
“Nice to meet you Annabel. What part of the team would that be?”
“I’m handling the liquid spectroscopy part of the assignment. Do you know much about liquid spectroscopy?”
“I’m not even sure I could spell it properly! Is this liquid.. spectroscopy… your specialty?”
“No, not exactly. I’m a marine biologist by trade, or will be once I finish my doctorate. I’m studying the mating patterns of sharks and stingrays at Southern Cross university. I know sharks aren’t seen as the most beautiful of creatures, but I’ve always found them to be beautiful. Perhaps a little.. I don’t know… perversely so. I’m not an idiot; I know they can be highly dangerous. Still, I was happy studying them… or was until I was told my funding would be tripled if I joined this team on secondment for a month. Academic funding can be such a pain, you know? So I jumped at the chance… but if you gave me the option right now, I’d jump right back onto a helicopter and back to Coffs Harbour. I’d rather be dissecting zygotes with my laser scalpel than dredging through this sour oil rig water. Did you know that a rig like this leaves an oil stain on the surrounding ecosystem for decades after it’s decommissioned? No? Most people don’t… but I shouldn’t get started. In fact, I’d better get back and finish that last round of test samples. Nice talking to you… Mr Heff.”
“Just Heff. You can just call me Heff.”
Chapter Four: Taking The Punches
Frankly, I was growing bored. I’d now been out on the oil rig for three weeks while Doctor Gates and her team shuffled around, taking water tests and meeting with the oil rig workers to set up instruments. The few times I’d offered to help, even just lugging the heavy instrument cases, I’d been rebuffed and told to head back to my room.
For this, I’d been pulled off the beach at Barbados? So I could babysit some scientists with an water fixation on a godforsaken oil rig off the coast of Indonesia in the middle of some of the worst weather I’d ever seen? Boothe must really be losing it, and in a serious way. Either that, or he was under intense pressure to get results, and having every field agent out in the field would make it seem to his superiors as though a breakthrough was imminent. The only thing that seemed to be breaking was my patience.
Three days later, my mood had shifted from bad to worse, and I was feeling a distinct sense of irritation. As with all agents, I’d been trained in how to stay alert during downtimes, but even distractions such as card games weren’t doing it for me. One of the oil rig workers had loaned me his smartphone to play games on, but after a few attempts at a game that seemed to consist of a man flying through the air by firing bullets out of his backside, I handed it back. Not only was it a ludicrous concept, but I didn’t want news of it to get back to weapons division. Who knew what they’d do with a concept like that?
I was just about to go and call back to the mainland and request a helicopter to get me off the rig when Doctor Gates approached me, as always with her clipboard in her hand.
“Ah, Heff. Good. You’re needed in the main control room. Everybody is, actually. My team has news to present, and I’m required by your boss to inform you of any updates so you can update him. Stupid system — why can’t I just email him?”
“Believe me, I’m not exactly having a ball being here. As to the email, I don’t think he’s got an email address. Technically, after all, he doesn’t actually exist. How are you going to email a man who doesn’t exist?”
“Zero Dot Zero Dot Zero Dot Zero At Nowhere Dot Com?”, she replied, a slight smirk forming on her face.
“What?”, I replied, by now feeling rather horribly out of my depth.
“Oh, never mind. Follow me.”
I followed her up the rusty and wet gantry steps and through the small porthole door into the main control room. The small oil rig staff were already there, which meant, I surmised, that the pumps must be running automatically, or not at all. They’d all been so busy working that the only one I’d got to know was the dark skinned lad called Sammo, who’d loaned me the game playing smartphone to while the hours away with. Otherwise, they were just a collection of faces to me.
As part of a standard security screen, I’d memorised the names and faces of Doctor Gates’ team. Aside from Gates herself, there was Mark Johnson, a short chubby man of African extraction. I’d not been able to pin a particular nationality on him, simply because I’d never heard him speak a word; the only sounds he seemed to make were a collection of short muttering tones while constantly tapping away on a small notebook computer he carried with him at all times. By contrast, Alexander Reayes was a tall caucasian who talked to everyone, constantly about whatever was on his mind. This was frequently equations that were well above my head, and it seemed, much of the rest of his team.
Perhaps that’s why Johnson only ever spoke in mutters; it was impossible for him to get a word in edgeways with Reayes around.
The last member of Gates’ team was of course Annabel Riker, the team aquatic biology expert. After that initial discussion in the mess room I’d not seen much of her at all, and even now she was busy clicking on the trackpad on her silver laptop, which was now connected up to a small projector.
“Ah, Doctor Gates and Mr Heff” said Albert Shoen, lead oil rig engineer. After Gates and her team, I’d seen the most of Shoen, who seemed to be one of those petty types who got their kicks by making things difficult for others, even if it wasn’t particularly productive to do so.
“Now we can begin. Doctor Gates, if you would?”
“Very well. Now as you know” Gates said, indicating towards the oil rig crew and myself, who were seated behind the projector, while her small team sat in front of it “we’ve been examining the waste water around this rig for unusual water elements. Unusual aside from the usual effluent and muck that an oil rig gives off…”
“Doctor Gates! I must protest! My rig complies with all the environmental standards it must! I run a clean rig!”
“Yes, yes, Mr Shoen. I meant, the effluent that would be normal and legally acceptable, of course. My own feelings on that matter don’t have any bearing on what’ll happen. What we’ve been testing for are other chemical compounds not normally found in salt water. What we’ve found isn’t just a little unusual; it’s something that shouldn’t be found outside of a chemical processing lab. And certainly not in these kinds of concentrations.”
“Are you suggesting we’ve been dumping waste, Doctor Gates?” Shoen interjected. He was clearly touchy about the subject, and Gates’ body language betrayed the fact that she was too.
“No, not at all. What we’ve discovered is a mix of chemicals that forms a polycarbonising ethanol destabiliser. I won’t go into the basics of the chemistry to this crowd — frankly you’d need a few months of tertiary chemistry and particle physics to get a grasp of it — but suffice it to say that it shouldn’t be in the water. Shouldn’t be there at all.”
“Is it poisonous? Dangerous to us?” Sammo piped up. From the expression on Shoen’s face, he wasn’t happy with the youngest member of his crew having said anything at all.
“Poisonous.. no. Not to humans, anyway. There’s a species of European Butterfly who would find a polycarbonising ethanol destabiliser instantly lethal, but we won’t find any of those out here. No, the problem is that polycarbonising ethanol destabilisers act in an unusual way on marine flesh. For most marine life it breaks down the fatty barriers that provide insulation for nerve endings. That could have long term effects on fish stocks over time, especially if they’re left unchecked, but the real problems are with the larger predators.”
“Larger predators?” Sammo asked, emboldened by his earlier question.
“Yes. Mostly the larger members of the carnivorous octopode families — of which there are precious few in this vicinity — and the sharks. And as every member of the oil rig crew would know, there’s no shortage of sharks in these waters.”
“Please, Doctor Gates. I have an oil rig to run. And frankly, after thirteen years on this rig, I know more about sharks than you do.”
At that, Annabel gave out a small snort. Shoen didn’t seem to notice, and continued on unabated.
“The sharks in this area are no problem at all. They’re timid sharks. Frankly, these sharks are pathetic! They’re no risk to anybody!”
“Ordinarily, Mr Shoen, that would be entirely true. They’re low aggressive predators in these waters, more concerned with tracking the tuna shoals than defending territory, which is where we normally see problems with humans and sharks. But what the polycarbonising ethanol destabiliser does to the shark’s nervous system is… complicated. I’ll try to break it down for you. Annabel, if you would?”
With that, Annabel started a slideshow on the projector. Great, I thought — not only do I have to spend my days on this boring rig, but now I was going to suffer through death by powerpoint.
The first slide up depicted a shark in some detail, with the veins highlighted in a pulsing red colour.
“This is a normal shark. We’ve highlighted the nervous system in red, and the pulsing effect that you can see is the normal operation of its nervous system. Sharks have very small brains.”
“See, I told you. They’re pathetic!”
“Mr Shoen, please do not interrupt again! As I was saying, normally, the small brain of a shark means that it’s almost entirely dependent upon its nervous system for all inputs. It hunts by instinct and nerve, noticing both the smell of the water as well as the bioelectric signals given off by shoals of coldwater fish. It’s one of the reasons why human beings are only rarely taken; sharks would largely prefer a cold meal according to current research.
What the polycarbonising ethanol destabiliser does is reverse this action. Slide two, please Annabel.”
With that, Annabel clicked on her trackpad to move the slideshow along. All of a sudden, the red pulsing lines doubled in thickness and became a great deal brighter and more rapidly pulsing.
“The polycarbonising ethanol destabiliser radically rearranges the shark’s nervous system, in effect rewiring their entire thought processes, if sharks can be thought of as thinking creatures at all. Suddenly they’re intensely territorial creatures, and hunters of warm blooded creatures. Like human beings.”
“So what you’re saying is that they’ll go from pathetic to predatory? I’ll just tell my men not to go for any summer swims, then.”
With that quip, Shoen’s men laughed out loud. The waters around the rig were that choppy, and the struts of the rig so high that, while the rig carried lifejackets and emergency flotation devices, they were largely for show. Anyone who fell overboard was as good as dead anyway; either swept away by the waves or dashed to bits against the rig’s superstructure, and everybody knew it.
“No. Well, yes, but that’s only half of it. The slides we’ve shown you are from my own lab research back in Canberra. Now, Annabel, can you go to slide three?”
Annabel duly clicked, and the nerve pattern of the shark flipped from red to half-red, half-blue, but still just as bright and pulsing.
“Under the heavy influence of polycarbonising ethanol destabilisers, the shark’s biology goes into overdrive, with elements that should regulate temperature rapidly shifting from cooling to heating cycles and back again. This raises the overall temperature of the shark in the areas of the shark’s body away from the nervous system. Annabel, would you?”
With that, Annabel clicked through once more. Now the entire body of the animated shark was pulsing with a red glow.
“What happens is that as the shark heats up, the chemicals in its flesh that usually translate into muscle movement home in on the nearest large target. At the same time, the acids in its digestive system begin to heat to dangerous levels. Like humans, Shark stomachs typically break down food with strong acids, but because it’s a marine creature, these acids are typically kept very cold indeed.”
“So what happens when they heat up?” Shoen asked, his attention now entirely caught.
“Usually, a shark’s own biology copes with that; if the shark becomes unwell, for example, we’ve seen them develop small ulcers due to overheated stomach acids. In this case, though, the polycarbonising ethanol destabiliser present in the flesh stops the ulcers from forming, and this means that the acid heats to the point where it reacts with the sharks’ own flesh, forming a highly unstable polyglyceride base.”
“Poly… what? Isn’t that like margarine?” Sammo asked, clearly looking for a laugh and perhaps some appreciation from his older colleagues.
“No. Not at all. An unstable polyglyceride base, similar to that of nitroglycerine. A highly explosive shark, in other words, with every instinct in its body being to find the nearest large creature, in its view, and attack. A large creature like this oil rig.”
With that statement, the room erupted in shouting, with Shoen declaring the whole thing ridiculous, his crew outright bursting into laughter, and Gates fuming all the time.
“Gentlemen. I am perfectly serious.”
“That you may well be, Gates” Shoen said, the dropping of the honorific clearly deliberate “But I’ve had enough valuable working time wasted on this farce. It’s been nothing but a headache having your crew here, but having made your presentation, it’s within my powers to have you removed from this rig. It gives me great pleasure… great personal pleasure” he said, pausing to give his words greater emphasis “to exercise those powers, effective immediately. You and your team will be leaving on the next available transport. I’ve got an oil rig to run!”
With that, Shoen and his team left the mess hall. The room went quiet.
A thought struck me, so I got up from my folding chair and approached Doctor Gates, who was busy packing up her notes and muttering to herself.
“Bunch of neanderthal idiots… Won’t see the forest for the trees…”
“Oh, WHAT DO YOU WANT?”
The force of her shout took me a little by surprise, but I suppose I should have seen it coming.
“Doctor Gates, I wanted to ask you a question. A rather serious question.”
“Yes, what? I’m rather busy… as you just heard, that IDIOT Shoen wants me and my team off the rig as soon as possible. That will include you, but I don’t really have time for chit-chat right now. So get on with it.”
“If I understood you correctly, the water around this rig has chemicals in it that’ll radically affect shark life, turning them rather unstable, yes?”
“Oh, good.” said Gates, sarcastically. “Somebody WAS listening!”
“Doctor Gates, please. Even I can see the obvious connection between these chemicals and the shark parts being found around the world, as I’m sure you can. This problem’s quite widespread, isn’t it?”
“Yes. Yes, of course it is. I thought your boss covered all this for you before we flew out here for this colossal waste of time…”
“No, not entirely. You forget — in my line of business, most things are done on an entirely need to know basis. Anyway, to get back to my question: The chemicals around the rig are turning sharks into.. bombs, I suppose.”
“Technically they’d be more like torpedoes, given the physical nature of sharks, but yes, that’s pretty much it. Again, I’m a little surprised — I’d presumed you knew about our research into polycarbonising ethanol destabilisers already?”
“No, not particularly, although I was following what you said. Now, if I gathered what you said correctly, then we’re on an oil rig in the middle of the ocean at night, in a storm, in waters heavily polluted by those same polycarbonising ethanol destabilisers and surrounded by unstable and highly likely to explode sharks whose only instinct is to attack large structures.”
“Yes, yes, that was my point…”
“Like, say, the large structure we’re on right now. Why are we still here?”
“That’s a very good..”
Doctor Gates never got to finish her statement, as at that exact moment, the room tipped sideways with a loud cacophonous noise that temporarily overwhelmed my senses.
I’d been lucky enough to be standing near the window, which meant that the force of the explosion threw me clean through it. It did shred my jacket, but that took the brunt of the force and the near-lethal glass shards with it, sparing me any further injury, at least for the time. I saw the horizon spin around several times as I flew through the air before making harsh contact with the sea water outside, as behind me the explosion of the oil rig grew in ferocity. Flames shot out from the sides of the rig up into the sky and down into the water even as I tumbled towards it. I could just make out the form of a woman in a skirt tumbling near me, but the bright glare from the flames made it impossible to work out if it was Doctor Gates or Annabel Riker.
The cold harsh water bit into my side as I hit the water, and for a second I imagined myself simply bouncing off it as though it were a massive bouncy castle. Instead I plunged beneath the frothing waves, as segments of the oil rig sunk rapidly all around me. The dark and swirling waters disoriented me, and for a few brief seconds I wasn’t sure which way was up, until I remembered to let a quick breath out and follow the escaping oxygen on its inevitable rise to the surface. Breaking the plane of the water, I gasped for air and looked around.
All I could see was the burning oil rig in the distance warping under the heat of the already combusting fuel that poured forth from it. That direction would lead my tender flesh being rather too rapidly cooked. But I now knew that if I stayed in the water, I’d quickly become either angry shark food if I was lucky, or victim of yet another shark torpedo if I wasn’t.
It was then that I saw Annabel Riker break through the waves as I had done mere seconds later. She seemed to be clinging to a box, so I cautiously made my way over to her. There was no sign of the rest of her team, or for that matter the oil rig workers. From what I could see of the burning superstructure, we’d been extremely lucky to be in the southmost corner of the rig in the mess room; it appeared at first glance that the explosion had taken out the northmost struts, which is where the riggers and engineers had their crew quarters. It seemed most likely to me that most, if not all of them would be dead by now. The matter at hand was clearly saving my own hide, and Miss Riker’s if possible.
“Annabel! Over here!”
“Oh! God! It all… blew up!” she shouted over the sounds of combustion. I could see that she was rapidly becoming hysterical, so with a few swift strokes I cut down the distance between us. From that distance I could see that the box she was hanging onto had a large red cross stamped on the side, as well as the legend “Emergency Supplies”. As I’d never been on an oil rig before I wasn’t sure they’d have much useful, but then every other supply — not to mention as far as I could tell every other living soul — on board the rig was a melted, fused mess by now. Opening it up seemed like the most sensible thing to do, so that’s exactly what we did.
My hands were quickly succumbing to the cold of the water, which made puling the two plastic emergency bolts on the case particularly hard. The first one popped out neatly, but the blast seemed to have warped the other one, and it was only with a mighty heave that I was able to dislodge the second bolt. Unfortunately that same heave popped the lid clean open and spilled its contents directly out into the ocean. The emergency kit contained bandages that were quickly swept aside by the swelling waves, a few bottles of some kind of medication — again also quickly lost to the waves due to the hard bottles they were contained within. What did float were three lifejackets, a small torch and two flares.
“Do you know how to use those flares?” asked Annabel.
“Never fired one before. But under the circumstances, what have we really got to lose?”
Saying that, I grabbed one of the soaked flares, and putting a prayer up to the gods that it wouldn’t simply explode and take my hand with it, I pulled the base out, as the soggy instructions seemed to indicate. It sputtered twice and then with a mighty FWOOOOOOOOSH noise, a green sparkle light shot up into the night sky and exploded in high contrast against the dark and damp night sky.
It was only then that I realised that anyone who might see the flare would probably see the hundred metre high flame that was even now arcing up from the ruined oil rig, and as such the flare was perhaps overkill. And then I heard a familiar noise over the burning oil and constantly tumbling waves. A low TOWOCKA-TOWOCKA-TOWOCKA-TOWOCKA refrain, and one that only a few hours before I’d been solidly sick of. The noise of a Heron-class helicopter in the distance. It was scanning the area with a powerful spotlight, and my spirits were momentarily raised. Then I noticed that the lights weren’t just attracting my attention; they were also attracting the attention of the local marine life, and most notably the local shark population.
It was then that I could see why Annabel had described sharks as perversely beautiful. Their dark glistening shapes carved through the water with astonishing ease, even as the waves churned up and down. Grey was still the predominant colour, but every once in a while as the helicopter’s beam played over them, I could make out a swirl of darker pigment that gave them colour and form, and even a few with what appeared to be lengthy battle scars. As far as I was concerned, they were welcome to battle each other; I was certainly in no hurry to either head over there and start a fight or, for that matter, for them to notice the two of us frantically attaching our bright orange life jackets while somehow staying inconspicuous. I was trying to sort out exactly how it was I was meant to get the helicopter’s attention while not getting the attention of the ocean predators who were both much closer and in their natural element when I noticed that the sharks weren’t exactly paying a great deal of attention to us anyway.
Instead, the sharks seemed to have their attention drawn to a spot about fifteen metres away from us, with a group — I counted a clear dozen, but in the dark waves there could easily have been more — bobbing around a central point.
There seemed to be a pool of them circling around something that I couldn’t quite make out. Presumably the floating corpse of one of the poor souls on the oil rig, but with the rain, the helicopter spotlight and the burning oil fires, it was all but impossible to make anything out at all. I rather hoped that they’d stay happy with whatever it was that was getting their attention. They certainly seemed to be largely working with a group, even to the point where some sharks slid over the bodies of other sharks as the tide and waves pushed them, when all of a sudden, there was the resounding noise of yet another explosion. When my ears cleared from the ringing, it became clear that this detonation was a little different to the ones I’d heard recently. More specifically, this this particular detonation hadn’t come from the oil rig, but instead from within the angry group of circling sharks.
One of them must have been infected with those… polycarbonising ethanol destabilisers! It had exploded, turning many of the circling sharks into torn shark cadavers. Not quite all of them perished, however, with three or four being hurled into the air instead. Including one flying shark which was hurled by the force of the explosion straight in my and Annabel’s direction.
Ever had a flying shark heading straight in your direction while you’re waist deep in ocean water several hundred kilometres from land in the dark of night? It’s not the friendliest thing, and as it flew towards me, the force of the exploding shark made it twist in the air like some kind of demented, dangerous spinning top. It flew over Annabel’s head with its back to her, but that meant that as it passed over my own head, it was with its mouth fully open.
That’s when I learned that, amongst the fact that Sharks have cylindrical teeth — see, I was paying attention back when I was being lectured in the sedan back in Byron Bay — that sharks have extraordinarily strong and rather fishy breath. That’d make sense given the diet of the average shark, but at the time, all it made me do was violently retch. That reflex action, and me bringing up the stale meat pie I’d had for lunch saved my life, as I tucked my head down as I expelled dinner, meaning my head passed just under the bottom row of the Sharks’ teeth; otherwise it would have picked me up along the way. Instead the momentum it still had carried it into the oil rig’s burning structure, where it was impaled on a burning strut. I was rather relieved when it didn’t then explode, and even more relieved when the helicopter’s search light lit up me and Annabel. Within a minute a rope ladder was lowered and, hoisting Annabel above me, we were quickly out of the water, shivering in pain.
“What the bloody hell happened here? Why did that shark just.. go up like that?” asked the co-pilot.
“Well.. I can’t exactly say why. Then again, I’m not exactly sure that I understand why. All I understand right now is that I’m bloody grateful to be out of the water, and extremely bloody cold. Got any thermal blankets?”
Original Image: Daniel Flower