4 min read

Bare Metal | Chapter One

Map of the Beaufort Sea
The Beaufort Sea

August 21, Twenty Years From Now

Command Capsule, Station Bravo
Beaufort Sea, Arctic Ocean
700 Meters Below Sea Level

“…Twenty-three. Twenty-four. Twenty-five.”

Emmett Pierce lowered himself to the rubberized floor and began counting to fifteen in his head.

“Emmett?” A soothing voice sounded from above him.

Emmett winced at the interruption. “Yes?”

“Your heart rate is slightly elevated. Remember to pace yourself. You still have two more sets to complete.”

“Copy that,” Emmett said as he levered himself into plank position. “Slower it is.” He drew a deep breath and sank to the floor in a carefully controlled descent. Then, with an explosive exhalation, he launched himself up and held for a count of three before repeating the process.

“Much better,” the voice said.

Emmett grunted his acknowledgment and continued his workout. He had completed three more push-ups when a piercing electronic warble shattered the silence. The LEDs in the ceiling began to flicker at a nausea-inducing frequency. He flopped to the floor and covered his ears with his hands and squeezed his eyes shut. He could barely hear himself think over the racket.

“Report to the operator console immediately,” the computer said in a commanding voice, an unmistakable note of urgency replacing its earlier, conversational tone. “Human intervention is required.”

Emmett staggered to his feet and lurched across the narrow room to his desk. He shoved his chair aside and stabbed at the button to move the work surface to a standing height. Perspiration cascaded across his brow, burning his eyes, and blurring his vision. His heart thundered against his sternum. He scrubbed away the sweat with the back of his arm and scrutinized the constellation of alerts clamoring for his attention. Meanwhile, the alarm blared, and the lights pulsed. Annoyance flared inside him. “Jesus Christ! Can you kill the God-damned alarms already?” He swiped his fingers across slippery glass as he searched for the manual override. But before he could find the control, the volume dropped by half, and then by half again.

The computer had beat him to it.

“Thanks,” Emmett muttered, squinting.

“Of course,” System said. There was a slight pause, and then it continued: “The problem is in sector three. Number twelve is not responding.”

Emmett pinched the bridge of his nose and tried to recall any recent issues with that particular bot. Nothing came to mind. He cursed.

“Show me where it was when we lost contact.”

His primary screen switched to an image of the sea floor where his crew of automatons were working. Twenty-one green icons represented healthy equipment. Two yellow dots denoted those machines that would need service soon. There should have been one more green dot. “What the fuck?” He said under his breath. “Is there any video?”

A new window appeared, but Emmett couldn’t even begin to decipher the moiré pattern of grays and browns he saw there. He cocked his head. The harder he looked, the less sense the image made. “Can you clean that up?”

“I’m sorry,” System said, “but there’s significant turbidity in the water. This is the best I can do.”

“Damn it. Okay. Do you know when we got this?”

The AI responded without hesitation. “This recording occurred two minutes and forty-eight seconds prior to loss of signal.”

Emmett scratched at his chin as he considered what he knew so far. The support drones roamed among the larger excavator robots continuously, delivering supplies and performing routine maintenance. They never remained in one place for long, though, and it was only blind luck this one had been in the vicinity of the rogue excavator.

An idea came to him. “Show me a topo view. Maximum resolution.”

The map shifted and zoomed. The last known location for the AWOL robot was at the base of a bright red feature that rose nearly two hundred meters straight up. An undersea escarpment.

“Looks like a landslide,” Emmett said, tracing the tip of his index finger along a tight grouping of contour lines. “We’re going to need to dispatch a repair mech right away.”

“I concur,” System said. “Two service units and a replacement excavator are en route to the site. I estimate minimal impact to quotas.”

Emmett nodded to himself. He was running ahead for the month. He could absorb one day.

“What’s your confidence level in recovery?” He asked.

“Ninety-seven-point nine eight percent.”

“Really?” Emmett replied, surprised. “Why so—”

“I just got a solid transponder lock and I’ve initiated retrieval. You can relax. Everything is going to be fine.”

As if on cue, the alarms fell silent and the lights returned to normal.

Emmett breathed out a great sigh of relief and dropped into his chair. The emergency had resolved just as quickly as it had begun.

He sat there, listening to the rise and fall of his own breath as he contemplated the events of the past few minutes. Once he had the timeline laid out in his head, he lowered his desk and got to work dictating his version. When he was finished, the station intelligence would combine his findings with its own, and then ship them all to a facility on the mainland where an even more powerful artificial mind would sift through all the various decision points and devise new procedures to prevent similar occurrences in the future. To Emmett the answer was pretty simple: don’t dig at the foot of a cliff. But what did he know?

He laced his fingers together and cracked his knuckles. This was the job.

When he was done, he got up from his chair and crossed the cramped space to the small kitchenette. The refrigerator opened with a soft pop, and he pulled out a half-full bottle of chilled water and drained the contents in a single gulp. He leaned against the wall. This was the most excitement he had experienced in months, and part of him was disappointed the crisis hadn’t been a little more long-lived. What did he expect, though? He was little more than a caretaker, babysitting gear that was several orders of magnitude more intelligent than him. Two more tours on the bottom were all he needed to have enough money in the bank to buy a decent place of his own. Three if he wanted to have a little extra cushion. He disposed of the empty container and returned to his workstation. Not a day passed when he didn’t marvel at how much he was being paid to sit down here and suck oxygen.

“How’re we looking now?” Emmett asked.

“All readings are nominal.”

“In that case,” Emmett said, rubbing his hands together in anticipation, “I’m going to finish my—”

The room plunged into darkness.