Command Capsule, Station Bravo
Beaufort Sea, Arctic Ocean
700 Meters Below Sea Level
Emmett cocked his head and listened to the darkness, searching for any sounds that would give him a clue as to what was going on. The only thing to reach his ears was a faraway creak, a not-so-subtle reminder of the trillions of tons of ocean pressing down on him from above.
“System?” He said, barely holding back the quaver that threatened to creep into his voice. “I need a situation report! What in the hell is going on?” He held his breath for a count of three, then exhaled long and slow through pursed lips. “System?”
The computer offered no response. Emmett tried once more, with the same result.
He closed his eyes and visualized the layout of the capsule, seeing it as a neat grid of squares on an architectural blueprint. The habitable area measured a mere five square meters. There were only three, maybe four strides between where he stood and the nearest emergency flashlight, attached to the far wall.
Using his console as a guide, he turned until he was aiming in what he believed was the right direction. He extended his hands before him and shuffled through the void until he bumped into the wall. From there, it took only a moment to locate the light. He ripped it from its bracket and stabbed the power button.
It was dead. Just like everything else.
Emmett cursed and wiped greasy sweat from his forehead. A shiver coursed through his body. Was it his imagination, or was it getting colder? He didn’t know how much time had elapsed. It couldn’t have been more than a few minutes. That wasn’t long enough to affect the temperature…or was it? With a sinking feeling, he realized he didn’t know how long he could last without the HVAC or the atmosphere exchangers to regulate his environment. Did he have an hour? Two? A day? He tried to remember the protocol for a total systems failure, but he drew a blank.
The enormity of his predicament made him want to vomit. The very act of breathing had suddenly become an activity with an expiration date.
He hugged himself. He had to evacuate, and he had to do it now.
He pitched his head back and looked up at where the ceiling would be if he could see it. Salvation was so close he could almost taste it. Less than a kilometer separated him from the endless expanse of Arctic sky. His resolve strengthened. He could do this. He racked his brain trying to remember how the evacuation process was supposed to work, chiding himself for not having reviewed the operating procedures since his first tour despite having attested to doing so. Fragments from a lecture with a long-ago instructor came to him. Something about taking his time and ensuring he didn’t make any rash decisions. Something about donning protective gear before he did anything else. A lot of somethings. Too many.
Emmett put his fingers to the wall on his right side and crept forward until he arrived at the primary storage locker. The door opened on silent hinges, and he wrestled out an unwieldy bundle of rubberized fabric encased in crinkly plastic. His immersion suit. The noise as he unwrapped the garment sounded like gunshots in the tomblike silence. He stripped away and discarded the packaging, then ran his fingers over the bulky outfit, reacquainting himself with its features. He had worn a similar getup once before, during training, but that had been years ago. A chunky zipper ran from the neck to the crotch. A beefy D-ring sewn into the center of the chest provided an attachment point for a safety tether. He unfolded the stiff carapace on the floor, sat, and climbed inside, shoes and all. Once he was situated, he zipped himself to mid-chest. He got back to his feet. Stretched. The fit was snug, but not overly so.
Satisfied with his progress, he made his next move. Two steps to his right put him before the main hatch. He found the lifeless electronic keypad with his fingertips and passed his wrist over the proximity reader. As he expected, the door didn’t respond. Okay, Emmett told himself, closing his eyes and conjuring up his instructor’s visage once again. “In case you lose juice, activate the manual override in the compartment adjacent to the sensor panel.” He ran his fingers along the bulkhead, stopping when he detected a break in the wall at chest height. He felt around, but could find no obvious means of access. In a burst of frustration, he slammed his open palm against the door, only to have it spring open with a sharp click. Encouraged, he probed the interior of the shallow cavity. He didn’t know exactly what to expect, but in his mind’s eye, he pictured something like a plumbing shut-off.
He froze. Shit. There were two mechanisms, oriented one above the other.
Emmett considered his options for a moment before mentally flipping a coin. To his surprise, the top handle turned easily, completing two full revolutions before coming to a stop and refusing to go any farther. He moved to the next one. It wouldn’t budge. Not even a millimeter. Emmett thew all his weight into the effort, to no avail. Nerves frayed and his patience running dangerously low, he took a deep breath and rolled his neck as he evaluated the problem. An ominous ker-chunk startled him back into the moment. Tentatively, he reached out and seized the stubborn control again. This time, he encountered no resistance.
Some sort of mechanical interlock must have been jamming things up, he decided.
Stale air wafted toward him as the airlock swung open.
Emmett slipped into the narrow chamber, and from there, into the Emergency Ascent Module. The EAM was his only way out. Engineered to spirit one person topside as quickly as possible, the claustrophobic vessel was a true option of last resort.
It took a few seconds to re-familiarize himself with how everything functioned. A bank of stubby toggles and two protrusions shaped like pistol grips were mounted directly overhead. The toggles controlled the heater, the incident locator beacon, and a few other functions that escaped him, while the hand holds operated the vehicle release. Emmett flipped each switch, to no effect. He poked around some more, until he located the air supply nozzle. A quick clockwise twist with his thumb and forefinger triggered a frigid blast of oxygen against his face.
The details were coming back to him now. He lowered a thinly padded bench from the wall and straddled it. Reaching over his shoulders, he threaded his arms through a pair of thick nylon straps. A separate strap buckled across his sternum completed the ensemble.
With nothing left to do, Emmett sat in the stygian gloom for almost a minute, collecting himself and trying to imagine what he would find when he got to the surface. Once he launched, turning back would be impossible. If he emerged into a storm, he would probably be shaken like a rock in a can. He could die. But if he stayed put, death through freezing or asphyxiation was a certainty.
The choice was easy.
He grasped the release handles and squeezed with all his might. With a muffled bang, the pressure triggers detonated the explosive bolts binding the EAM in place. Slowly at first, but with increasing speed, Emmett lifted off from the seafloor and accelerated toward an uncertain future.