Beaufort Sea, Arctic Ocean
Emmett shed his heavy neoprene survival suit and sweaty coveralls, exchanging them for a pair of fleece-lined jeans, a long-sleeved polypropylene shirt, and a thick black sweater with the stylized logo of a blue and white flame stitched over the breast pocket. He grabbed an energy bar from the drawer beside the sink and slumped on the bench seat at the kitchenette table, exhausted.
He unwrapped his meal and took a bite. As he chewed, his thoughts turned to the state of his food supply. To his chagrin, he couldn’t recall the date of the last delivery. Food and supplies arrived whether he was topside or down below, tending to his robots. Everything was automated. The downside of this, he now realized, was that he had no idea what he had on hand. He had no reason yet to expect the next supply drop wouldn’t occur on schedule, but he would be remiss if he didn’t plan for the worst case. He made a mental note to do an inventory as soon as possible.
Emmett took another bite. The salty sweetness of the food had awakened a thirst in him. He stood and went to the kitchen. He grabbed a mug from the cupboard and placed it on the counter. With a practiced flourish, he depressed the power button on his electric kettle and reached for the coffee jar.
Emmett toggled the switch twice more before his brain caught up with his muscles. “Right, he said to himself. “No electricity.” He returned the mug to its home and instead slaked his thirst with a few sips of water. He returned to the kitchenette, and was about to sit when he caught sight of something unexpected through the south-facing picture window. “What the—” He muttered, approaching the window and leaning on the sill. “Where in the hell did you come from?”
Ore haulers like the one now floating less than a kilometer from the habitat were a common sight in the Arctic. The unmanned craft prowled the ocean day and night, accepting loads of raw materials from the hordes of extraction machines on the sea floor, and ferrying their cargo back to shore for processing. The problem now was that Emmett didn’t remember seeing this particular ship before. But that wasn’t all. He stared hard at the vessel, his mind churning as he tried to pin down the source of his unease. Finally, it came to him: the hauler had no running lights.
Raw methane hydrate was notoriously unstable, and prone to explosion. The idea of an unpiloted and unpowered transport roaming the nearby ocean sent a shiver racing down his spine. He could think of almost nothing more dangerous for himself and the occupants of the other outposts, and for anyone else who happened to be at sea in the region for that matter.
He shifted his gaze from the rogue vessel to the southeast horizon. If he tilted his head just right and squinted, he could almost discern a faint protuberance interrupting the razor-sharp line where the sky met the sea: Station Charlie. There were three facilities in total in this part of the Beaufort Sea, arrayed in a triangular formation. The third one in the group, Alpha, sat almost directly behind Emmett, over his left shoulder. While he hadn’t visited either of the other facilities in person, he knew the operator of Charlie from training, and they spoke periodically.
He winced as he turned his head and a sudden glint of light nearly blinded him. The flashing continued, with two more short bursts followed by three long pulses, and then three short ones. It took Emmett a second to realize the significance of what was happening, and when he did, he immediately turned and strode across the room toward the emergency locker.
The top shelf in the supply cabinet held a stack of bound operational safety manuals. The middle one contained two briefcase-sized boxes, one white and one bright orange. The white box contained the first aid kit. He chose the orange case and pulled it free. The bottom shelf held four water jugs and several cartons of high calorie food bars. A pair of heavy-duty rubber-coated binoculars hung on a dull silver hook inside the door. Emmett took the glasses and draped them over his neck.
He hauled the case to the kitchen table, laid it on its side, and thumbed open the two latches on the near edge. He found what he sought in a clear vinyl pouch tucked beneath a digital compass and a satellite communicator, both of which were dead. The small mirror with the word signal etched across the top in neat block letters and a hole in the center for aiming fit neatly in the palm of his hand. Along with the mirror he discovered a laminated card listing the relative headings of the other stations in his vicinity. The last piece of the puzzle to responding to the other station came in the form of a slim pamphlet emblazoned with the words ‘Maritime Application of Morse Code.’ Flipping through the pages, Emmett discovered his counterpart, Kelvin, had transmitted a simple SOS, or distress call. He reviewed the instructions for a minute, searching for an appropriate response, before deciding to keep things simple and repeat the message as he had received it. It was better, he figured, to offer some sort of acknowledgment as soon as possible, rather than nothing at all.
Emmett approached the main hatch, worked the release, and squeezed outside. The air had grown chilly since his arrival, but his windproof sweater provided an adequate barrier. He circled the building until he located the red circle with a “C” beside it stenciled on the catwalk, indicating where he was supposed to stand. It took him a moment to focus in on the distant structure, and when he did, his spirits soared. Kelvin was waving at him. While Emmett couldn’t see the other man’s face from so far away, his gut told him Kelvin was smiling from ear to ear, just like he was. He waved back.
He checked the signal instructions again, and with an eye on the sun to make sure he had the right angle, he replied.
Kelvin answered right away.