Words that work.
This preview is offered at no charge for your individual, personal enjoyment, to be read here at www.jmgifford.com. I hope you like it and choose to buy the whole book. The typeface, paragraph spacing and other layout choices are different here online, because online reading necessarily adapts to the technology with which you read this, but the words are what you find in the complete book. The book is copyrighted, as is this excerpt. You are not given permission to make a copy of any or all of this, or to give it or sell it to anyone. The sole purpose of this preview is for your personal exploration of the beginning of the book, so you can decide whether you’d like to purchase the book. I hope you will want to do so.
Thank you for your interest in Bobby Q. Bon appetit! -J.M. Gifford
BOBBY Q © 2015 J.M. Gifford
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
First edition published 2015
See: The water loves the air, caresses the air, shoulders against the air, and in times of particular passion pounces upon the air. The water seethes in jealousy when anything solid dares to reach above the waves and touch the air. A reef, an island, a continent must be pulled down by booming surf or by tapping, tapping rain. Gravity insists. Earth must down, air must up, water must between, now and evermore.
Off the Carolina coast, several lines of thunderstorms swept northeastward at sunset. Pearl and cream, slate and jade, the ocean and sky whipped into froth where they met and mingled. The wind moaned alto arpeggios, and the sea swells arched in lusty response.
SeaSol Inc.’s Outer Banks 1712, an aging hydrogen harvester, was colossal by human scale but puny against the vastness of the ocean. Six fat legs astride two submerged pontoons hefted the rig’s platform skyward. It was hell for strong, but utterly lacking in nautical grace, not so much seaworthy as seacontemptuous. The squall’s song whistled and screeched in the rig’s railings, and the ocean marshaled battalions of waves to assault the rig.
Alone on the enormous rig, Ozzie Lang leaned out downwind and spat. “I hate this!” he yelled to no one. He was frustrated, partly by the storms but mostly by his stomach.
“You bastards couldn’t have waited one more day to send me out here. That’d be too easy. Probably sunny and calm tomorrow. But no, the rig is losing money, so there’s nothing for it but to drop me off right away, even when you know the weather is about to go to hell, and leave me on this big hunk of steel that’s the tallest thing for fifty kilometers in all directions, just begging to be hit by lightning. You drop me off just so I can hurry up and wait, because, as you know and I know, the problem can’t be fixed in the middle of a storm, because the rig is designed to shut down in high winds anyway. Morons. I work for morons.”
He snugged up the wrist cuffs of his yellow rainskin and wiped the rain and sea spray from his face.
On second thought, Ozzie decided his coworkers were not morons. Everyone else at the company was back in Charlotte, comfy, cozy and dry. He was the only one getting soaked out here in the middle of nowhere.
He squeezed his palms against the slick rail. He could feel the uneven ripples of layer upon layer of paint that had been applied year by year, for many more years than he had been alive, evidence of decades trying to defend the steel rail against the constant siren song of salty rust and ruin.
Iron is a redheaded Juliet, a feverish femme who feels passion for her Romeo, oxygen. She resents being kept from him, resents being cooped up behind a convent wall of paint, wearing all steel gray. And O, she wants him, her old flame.
The taste of salt was stimulating Ozzie’s salivary glands, and that was not helping his nausea. Salt was everywhere, in the water, in the spray, in the air, in his tear ducts, on his tongue. He spat again.
The massive SeaSol rig under Ozzie’s feet nosed up gradually and leaned toward his left, in grudging response to the waves.
He growled and spat. “I’ll ride you out,” he said to the storm. “Big deal. You cost me my lunch, but I will be just fine. Lunch was lousy anyway. Little cold front. Think you’re so tough? You’re boring, that’s what you are. Damn boring nuisance.”
The rig could take a lot worse, and so could he, or at least so could every part of him save his stomach, which was long since empty and yet was still trying, vainly, to become more empty. Ozzie had come to the rail for a spate of dry heaves, and was working on steadying his breathing, getting his equilibrium back.
“Grits, is there anything on this rig that would settle my stomach fast?”
Ozzie had felt quite clever when he chose to name his omni Grits, back when he was eight and his parents took him to get his first big-person omni, the real deal, implants and all. He had occasionally entertained thoughts of renaming it after a comic book hero, or a fast car, or a cute actress, as so many of his friends had chosen to do with their omnis over the years, but somehow he had just never bothered to make a change.
Grits replied, “Standard SeaSol rig inventory includes patches to reduce seasickness, in a locker in the galley,” and showed him a quick visual of which cabinet in the kitchen he should check.
Another pointless cramp gripped his gut. Stomach, you are empty, for God’s sake, he thought. Why don’t you know that? Isn’t that part of your job, to know whether you are empty or full? This is not complex. You were empty. Then I ate lunch. My mistake. But then you threw up all that. Okay. So you’re empty again. Simple. Listen to me. Quit with the cramps and heaves already. Just settle down.
He couldn’t hear Grits’s customary soft chime in his ear over the whistle of the wind and the drumming of raindrops, but he saw his friend Pele Hanohano link in. He blinked to open the line, and her image appeared in front of him, briefly bordered by a glowing green rectangle, her head and shoulders suspended in the storm. Pele sounded like pure central Carolina, but her parents were from Hawaii, and as Ozzie looked at her image against the background of the storm he saw caramel skin, dark chocolate eyes, licorice hair, and then he wondered why his brain would reach for food metaphors when his stomach was so upset. She cooks, he thought. It makes sense to think of food when I see her. She cooks. In the image Grits was projecting, Ozzie could see behind Pele the compact and busy kitchen at Bobby Q, the little pulled pork barbecue joint in Charlotte she had run for years and had just agreed to sell. He heard pans clattering and food sizzling. He could almost smell it. Normally that would be a delightful aroma, but barbecue was not something Ozzie’s stomach needed just then.
“Hey, Ozzie. You don’t look any better than you did half a hour ago. You still barfing?” Pele asked, her smile nudging a dimple into her left cheek. Given her luxurious drawl, what Ozzie’s ears heard was closer to “Yew steel barfin’?”
“Nah, just dry heaves. Wish they’d stop. I have work to do. Don’t you have work to do?”
“Naw, we’re past the dinner rush. I’m just doin’ some pans. The proud new owner’s here and I’m lettin’ him take charge ‘til closin’. Who’d have thought a Jewish guy from Krakow named Woznicki would have such fun making pulled pork? He’s doin’ fine, just like I taught him. You know, Ozzie, I just called back because it occurs to me, if you go with me next week, you won’t have to worry about bein’ rained on for years and years.”
“Go with you? Pele, even if I did follow you halfway around the solar system, what would I do when I got there?”
“Cook. With me.”
“I don’t know how to cook. I burn toast.”
“It isn’t rocket science. Well, okay, getting way out there to the Catcher is rocket science. But I mean the job, Ozzie. Once we’re there, all you need to know is barbecue and cole slaw. Fry up some hush puppies and onion rings. Boil some collards and kale. Even on the Catchers, people need to eat. Give ‘em protein, hot fat, salt and sugar. They’ll come back for more.”
Her mention of salt made Ozzie shudder. “Yeah, but you have a job there, Pele. I don’t.”
“They’re recruiting every day. You know that. You see the ads, same as I do. It’s a four-year hitch. Just sign up. They’ll take you.”
“They’ll take me, for some job, maybe, but who says they’d let me work with you, or within a hundred million klicks of you?”
“I can probably write a ticket for you myself.”
“You mean, you’ll tell them we went to high school together seven years ago and they’ll say, ‘Well, all right then, have your friend sign here’?”
“Could be,” she said. She brushed a stray strand of hair up off her forehead, tucking it into the elastic of her Bobby Q cap. “Let’s just say that I have some fans, who now are on July Catcher, who for sure could sign you up for a job there if they wanted. You know there’s plenty of work to do, for anyone who will sign a four-year deal and hasn’t killed a lot of people or slept with too many farm animals lately. Please tell me you haven’t killed people while I wasn’t looking.”
“I swear to God, I haven’t killed anyone, ever. And as for the other thing, no sheep since college.”
“What pun?” she asked. Ozzie just waited. “Oh.” She laughed. Pele’s laugh was deep and velvety, and Ozzie loved hearing it.
“Pele, you know that I’ve thought about it,” he said. “It’s a big commitment.” Ozzie wiped the rain from his face. “I’m not as ready as you are to leave it all behind.”
“What would you be leaving behind, Ozzie?”
“No, Ozzie, I mean it. What would you miss? Babysitting rust buckets for SeaSol? You’ll die of boredom before you turn thirty. And you know I’m not askin’ any commitment to me. I’m not shoppin’ for a husband.” She looked down for a moment. Ozzie heard the sound of empty pans dropping into a steel sink, and the strident hiss of a faucet. “It would be awful nice to have just one person I know along for the ride, you know? Until I get settled out there. If you’re nice, well, I might could borrow you for a snuggle once in a while, until I find someone better.” She gave him a mischievous look. “I ain’t gonna break you, darlin’. I’ll put you back on the shelf good as new, I promise.”
Ozzie and Pele had spent a few nights together, from time to time. It wasn’t love; it was usually a happy combination of lust, proximity, pizza and beer. There wasn’t anyone else in Ozzie’s life who had crossed the line back and forth between friend and lover as Pele did. He let the gist of the comment pass, but not the slang.
“Did you just say ‘ain’t’?”
“Hey, I know it’s bad grammar but it’s good business. I keep track of it for fun. When I drop some ‘ain’ts’ and ‘y’alls’ in front of the customers, I get bigger tips than when I’m all careful to say ‘isn’t’ and ‘you,’ bein’ all proper and all. That works whether the customer is a guy or a woman. Know what else? For a low neckline, guys’ll tip a little more, on average, but women tip a little less, so cleavage kinda evens out.”
“Pele, you sure do know your business. But when you say you want me to go with you, you’re talking about… well, it’s not like moving to another county, you know? It’s a big deal. I’d be leaving mom and dad behind, and…” He trailed off. Was there a whole lot else he’d miss if he did go off planet? “Besides, you see how much fun I’m having here on this damned rig? What would zero gee do to me? I’d puke my guts out.” Ozzie cleared his throat. “The thing is, SeaSol doesn’t send me into the field like this too often. Most days I’m in a nice office, and it doesn’t rock or tilt or lean, and at night I’ve got a nice apartment with a warm bed –”
“And we both know, ain’t nothin’ making that bed rock or lean most nights.”
“Yeah yeah yeah, I don’t have a girlfriend at the moment. Don’t change the subject. The subject is me not signing up to go with you to July Catcher. Why would I want to spend four years living inside a big spinning donut, being space sick every damn day?”
Pele shook her head. “It’s one gee on the floor on the way there, and one gee all day every day on the Catcher. Steady as a rock. No oceans, no waves, no storms, Ozzie. And on the way there, you’d have nothing better to do than learn to be almost as good a barbecue chef as I am.” Pele’s face turned away for a moment, then back to him, and she brought her hands up into view in front of her face, holding a sourdough bun and a pair of tongs dripping steaming hot barbecue. “This is the stuff. What you need is a sandwich, my friend. See how easy it is? Sells itself.”
“Oh God, not now. Get that stuff away…” Ozzie brought his hands up to ward off the image.
“Ozzie, you like my barbecue.”
“I love it. Just not while I am in the middle of throwing up. That tends to ruin the moment.” His salivary glands twanged. He winced and spat. “Ufff. I’m gonna miss you and all, when you go, but sometimes – I mean, you really…”
“I dunno. I was trying for something clever. I give up. Too sick to be a smartass right now. Bleh.”
There was another chime in Ozzie’s ear and Ann Frances Randolph linked in, the green border of her image appearing beside Pele. Almost everyone at Virginia Tech had called her AnnFranRan. Ozzie preferred just to call her Ann. He could hear her little dog barking at something in the background, an incongruous sound against the rain and relentless wind around him. Ann was slightly nearsighted. She tended to lean in and squint a bit when linking. Ozzie found it endearing. Ann’s neat curls of dark brown hair were clipped back over one ear with an understated silver bar. She probably has a date tonight, Ozzie thought.
“Pele says you’re sick,” said Ann. “I just called to offer some sympathy.” Ann’s eyes were full of concern and sweetness.
Ozzie had suffered through an unrequited crush on Ann back in their freshman year at Virginia Tech. He was over her, he thought. That’s done. And then he thought, well, maybe, maybe not, but it was too late now. Ann had gotten married right after college. The marriage went sour quickly. She had gotten divorced last year. Ozzie had done a lot of virtual hand-holding through all of that, as Ann would link in with red eyes and clenched teeth, just wanting to vent. He was pretty sure Ann thought of him as a “good listener.” All that baggage bubbled up in a half-second as he saw her face. He said to her, “No big deal, Ann. Really. I’m okay. But thanks for asking.”
“Where are you?” She moved her head a bit side to side, trying to make out the background in the image of Ozzie her omni was showing her.
“I’m a little ways offshore,” Ozzie said, “checking out a rig that isn’t working right.” He wiped the rain from his face again. God, he thought, I am a mess. He wanted to spit, but not in front of Ann. He swallowed instead. The storm was knocking down the signal somewhat. Grits’s images of Pele and Ann flickered, froze briefly, and resumed.
Pele said, “How you doin’, AnnFranRan. Wouldn’t want you to suffer all by yourself, Ozzie.”
Ann said, “Hi, Pele.”
Ozzie was not sure where this was headed. “So… you told Ann that I was throwing up.”
Pele kept smiling, but her attention was divided between the conversation and whatever her hands were up to in the kitchen.
“She told just about everybody,” said Ann. Her little dog launched an indignant volley of barks in the background. Ozzie found himself thinking, if Ann did decide I was more than just a good listener, if we were dating, if we were serious, she’d be bringing that stupid dog over to my place with her. And he thought, still a good deal, probably, but damn.
Jimbo Cooper linked in. “Pele says you’re miserable,” he said. “Just wanted to say I don’t care, really. I tried to get Anton to say hi but he’s watching some old Disney flatvid thing with his kids. Hi Pele. Is that AnnFranRan? It is. Hi.”
Pele laughed. “Someday, Jimbo, you, too, might be a dad in Disney jail. Uh-oh, customers stackin’ up. Gotta help my new owner Woz make some sandwiches. Money calls, y’all. Bye!” and her image faded out.
Donald Olowambe linked in. “Nice weather, Lang. Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!” he said.
“You quoting poetry to me, Donald?”
Donald nodded as his omni linked him around the conversation. “Hi Jimbo. AnnFranRan. Hey, it’s a party.” A quick chorus of hellos echoed back and forth. Donald continued, “Yes, Ozzie, that line was from King Lear. Mrs. Jackson. Twelfth grade. Remember?”
“Not really, no.”
“Well, if you had majored in English instead of being an engineer…”
“Then maybe you would have been an engineer, Donald, and you would be here throwing up, and I could be somewhere dry, quoting Shakespeare at you,” said Ozzie.
Jimbo waved. “Gotta run, Ozzie. I just called to say keep up the… I mean, I don’t know, barf well. Make the vomit your own. Be the best barfer you can be.”
“Thanks a lot,” said Ozzie. Jimbo’s image winked off. The rig wallowed and continued its ponderous rolling as the crest of another wave shouldered into view in front of Ozzie’s feet.
A flat still image of Ozzie’s boss, Nora, appeared in a blinking yellow border. To Ann and Donald he said, “Hey guys, you know I’d rather talk to you, but my boss is knocking. Be good!” He waved goodbye and looked down where Grits’s controls lived at the bottom of his field of vision, and with a practiced series of blinks he switched his access from personal mode to work mode. His boss’s link opened up, the yellow border around Nora’s image turning green as her video went live, while red borders surrounded Ann and Donald as their images went still, and flat, and then faded out.
Nora was looking down, evidently checking out something on her desk, and then she noticed that his link had gone green, and she looked at him.
He could see, behind Nora, the setting sun shining through her office window. Her face, calm and dry in the Charlotte office, floated against the background of the storm that buffeted Ozzie, her wavy blonde hair quiet on her shoulders, her blouse and blazer in silken and woolen repose. Her image flickered and resumed. Presumably, his image did the same in her office, because her head tilted a bit and her blue eyes squinted. “Ozzie?” She was not sure she was successfully linked in. “Ozzie? How’s it going?”
“See for yourself.”
“What? Speak up.”
He raised his voice against the storm, maybe a bit more than necessary, exaggerating for effect. “I said, see for yourself.” He spat, and that, too, was partly for effect. “Quite a blow out here at the moment, if you hadn’t noticed.”
“Really? Aw, you hardly feel a thunderstorm on a big fat offshore rig. I did my share of rig duty, you know, and I had some stormy days. If the weather isn’t almost a hurricane, those semisubmersibles don’t move at all on the water. Nice and easy, like sitting in the middle of a corn field.”
“Yeah, well, that is not the case today, evidently. Here, watch. I’ll hold still.” He glanced down and blinked to shift Grits into point-of-view mode, so Nora saw whatever Ozzie looked at. Ozzie fixed his gaze along the side of the rig’s main platform at eye level. Against that straight edge, the horizon tilted and whitecaps milled. “Does this look like sitting in a corn field? This rig is taking dance lessons this evening.”
Nora just laughed. “Stop whining, you big baby.”
“Yes, okay, you’re the boss. No more whining.” He blinked the omni back to normal self view. “But I can’t do anything fancy out here until this dies down. Wind’s way in the black flag range for the collectors. Have to wait. I’m running the usual tests but the proof will be in what happens when we get a lot more sun and a lot less wind.”
Lightning flickered on Ozzie’s horizon, and as it did, the video link to Nora also flickered, broke apart momentarily, reformed. Nora looked at something in front of her on her desk and tapped at it purposefully with graceful fingers. “Twelve hours, give or take, until you’re in better weather,” she said. “Seen these? Here…” Satellite weather feeds appeared in front of Ozzie, next to the image of Nora. He grabbed the virtual images with his hands and enlarged and studied them as she continued. “Looks like three good strong bands of thunderstorms coming your way after this one. Then it’ll all clear up. Things will be better by breakfast.”
“I don’t expect to be needing breakfast. Especially not breakfast from the lousy excuse for a kitchen here.”
“What? That sounded like more whining. You know I can’t hear you when you whine.”
“Nothing. Never mind.”
“All right, all right. Enjoy the overtime. Get some sleep. I’ll check in with you in the morning. By which time, you might have that old bucket back in operation. Bye.” She gave a little half wave as her image faded out.
Grits’s tally showed that six other friends had left messages in his plink folder. So Pele really had told everyone. While he was glancing at it, it bumped up to seven as Ozzie’s buddy Kevin Zhou linked in, leaving a short message. Probably signed off with his usual obscene gesture, Ozzie thought. He left his friend links on standby. He put work links on standby, too. If his boss didn’t need any more reports until morning, he was happy to choose to be uninterrupted. This was not a particularly sociable moment. He went inside and down two levels to the galley and found the seasick patches. He opened his rainskin, pushing the hood back and shrugging out of the arms. He rolled up his sleeve and applied the patch.
The face reflected back at him in the metal cabinet door was unhappy and wet. It was a fairly square face, with a pink oval mark from the snug rainskin hood. His short, straight brown hair was dry, and his gray eyes were a little on the bleary side. His complexion, too pale for his own liking on a good day, was ashen on this woozy roller coaster day. You, he told his reflection, need some more sun, and you need to work out more. You need some muscle tone. He was on the lean side of thin, but not skin and bones. He wished he had a more powerful looking chest, or abs that rippled, or biceps that bulged. He did not exercise. He had plenty of opportunity to exercise, but he lacked the will to do it. Exercise bored him.
He splashed some soapy warm water on his face and hands. Anything that replaced the smell of salt would help. He thought about snagging a Coke from the dispenser, then decided a bottle of water would be a wiser choice. He shrugged back into the rainskin and climbed the metal stairs, preferring the rain topside to the dry galley because the motions of the rig were even less pleasant when he couldn’t see the horizon.
Outside again, wending his way back toward the rail, he skirted a steel structure that looked like a warehouse-sized breakfast croissant, or maybe like a sleeping armadillo, hunkered on the platform, its arched roof reaching about 15 meters at its highest point. It was a hangar, a storm shelter for huge, delicate solar collector arrays. Similar armadillo shapes occupied all four sides of the main deck. A dimpled dome like half an enormous golf ball filled in the center of the platform. All the major components were buttoned up tight. SeaSol, logical to a fault if not overly poetic, called this locked-down condition for an offshore rig “armadillo mode.”
He caught his balance with a half-step as the platform began another roll to the right. No, he thought to himself, it’s starboard, the motion is to starboard now. Might as well think in nautical terms while on the rig. I’m facing the bow, and the empty helipad perched over the water 100 meters or so behind me – aft of me – is at the stern. Nothing on the rig really looked like the bow or stern of a traditional ship, but Outer Banks 1712 was mobile by design, and whenever it was underway, the blunt side of the cube where Ozzie was headed would lead, so it was the bow. The storm kept pushing at the rig from astern. Port, starboard, athwart, abeam, hard alee, Arrrgh, Matey. Every lifestyle and trade has its jargon.
Ozzie rinsed his mouth out with a sip from the water bottle, and spat over the rail. The foaming crest of a wave emerged close under his feet, remarkably close, where on a calm day he would be 20 meters above the water. As the wave left Outer Banks 1712 behind, the deck under Ozzie’s feet began to pitch down slowly, and the platform kept rolling to starboard for a moment before heeling back to port.
Fat raindrops splatted continuously against his boots, his thighs, his back, his neck, his head. The rainskin kept out the water but not the chill. Ozzie’s shoulders hunched. He squinted, shook his head and pulled one hand from the rail to mop the water away from his eyes. The rig’s center of gravity waltzed in three dimensions with the water and the air.
Ozzie knew the Atlantic Ocean was not particularly deep here. Hell, he thought, it would not have been very difficult to anchor this rig with legs reaching all the way to the continental shelf, steady as you please. Maybe that would have been cheaper than this pontoon-based semisubmersible deal. But no, Outer Banks 1712 and its two thousand counterparts up and down the coast all had to be mobile. They migrated like herds of slow, sun-loving steel buffalo, avoiding hurricanes and stalled cold fronts and any other large-scale weather patterns that reduced the sun budget.
SeaSol’s bottom line was built a molecule at a time. It depended first on busting up the marriage of salt and water, and then on busting up the tenacious menage a trois in each water molecule among an oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms. The oxygen atoms produced by electrolysis, deprived of any other types of atoms to play with, paired up as O2 molecules and the rig chilled and stored them as liquid oxygen in cavernous insulated dewars within the legs along one side. Cooling the hydrogen molecules all the way to their liquid state was impractical, so the H2 was stored as high-pressure gas in the legs along the other side of the rig. Simple as dirt, the rig was, when it was working. Sunlight and seawater became profits in the form of a continuous supply of hydrogen and oxygen for transfer to shore. Even the sea salt from the desalination loop was collected and sold. Except for repair and maintenance visits, the rigs operated without people aboard, just cranking out the goods and making dividends for the shareholders.
Outer Banks 1712 had been in armadillo mode for three calm and sunny days before the storm. With its big solar collectors locked down tight, there was no spin for the turbines, no current in the generators, no desalination, no electrolysis, no hydrogen, no oxygen, no money.
Since the rig’s own troubleshooting was obviously not getting the job done, and remote diagnostics from company headquarters had failed to fix the problem, Nora had given Ozzie the nod, and a company helicopter had flown Ozzie out to the rig, impending thunderstorms or no, to find a way to wake it up and get it producing again.
While waiting for the seasickness patch to calm his stomach, Ozzie made the rounds of the major systems topside and in the claustrophobic, windowless little operations center behind the navigation bridge. By ten o’clock that night he was satisfied that no zillion-dollar problems were in play; none of the major systems in the turbine section or inside the solar array storm hangars seemed to be broken. He did find that one of the three redundant weather sensor packs was dead, and he pulled a backup sensor package from the rig’s onboard stores, connected it and tested it. It woke up properly, detecting the squall conditions and feeding the rig all the expected recommendations in synch with the other two sensors. That sort of module replacement was something the rig should have known to do. The maintenance robots could swap a modular unit like that. For some reason, the rig had not detected the fault.
He sent all of that analysis to Nora in a series of quick vids while he crawled around, over and through the rig’s systems, and returned to the bow railing to watch the lightning play against the clouds and waves in the dark.
The patch was starting to help. He consoled himself with the thought that at least he was getting some good overtime pay. Rig duty offshore paid time and a half. Hazardous rig duty paid triple. Being offshore when the weather grounded company helicopters and hovercraft was considered hazardous duty.
Lightning flashed closer, once, twice, thrice. The thunder came within a couple seconds, sharp and crackling over the wind’s howl. “Missed me!” Ozzie yelled. “So that’s your plan? You want to fry me here while I hold on to this?” He slapped the railing. “Pretty good conductor here. That would be a great headline. ‘Charred Hands of Missing Mechanic Found Stuck to Sick Rig.’ Well, hey, if you don’t want me out here on the rail, stop making this pig wallow so much.” Spit. More lightning. “Oh, All right, all right. Have it your way. I’ll go inside.” Ozzie leaned over, coughed and spat once more for good measure, shuffled back to the entry for the crew quarters, and dogged the hatch shut behind him.
It wasn’t homey, he thought as he stripped off his rainskin and hung it on the nearest peg. Comfort for the very occasional and very temporary human occupants was not high on the rig designers’ list of things to worry about. Six plain steel bunks with thin mattresses lined one wall on this level. There was a small table. A door led to the small, stuffy bathroom. No, he thought, not a bathroom; it is called a head, here on the water. The galley wasn’t much of a kitchen, mostly military-style meals guaranteed not to spoil, or ever taste good, for ten years. A coffee maker and a sink were under a small porthole looking out on the storm. Down the hall was the ship’s bridge, with a basic navigation and communication panel, last upgraded maybe 30 years ago and therefore older than Ozzie. He wondered if any actual humans had used that bridge to maneuver the rig, even for a day, in those 30 years. Probably not. A hatch at the rear of the bridge led to an escape chute down into the lifeboat.
Standing at the sink in the head, he rinsed his mouth again. If there was one place in the world where fresh water should be easy to come by, it was on this rig where seawater was desalinated and distilled constantly. The water from the tap in the head tasted like the pipes it flowed through: metallic, not dirty, but not appetizing, either. He switched to his bottled water and rinsed and spat and rinsed and spat to get the taste of stomach acids out of his mouth. He splashed his face with soapy water again. His shirt got a little wet, but Ozzie had no need to appear neat, so he left it alone. He dried his face, looking at his reflection in the mirror with mild annoyance. Ozzie reached into his toiletries kit and found what he wanted by feel, and he used it to wuzz his teeth clean, and since that seemed to do more than anything else to make him feel better, he wuzzed them again, and then a third time.
He unwrapped another seasickness patch and stuck it to his left bicep. The double dose would make him sleepy, but that was okay now. He could jolly well hit the rack early and earn triple time pay while sleeping.
He slung himself into a bottom bunk. For a minute, he thought of linking Pele back, and then decided against it. She was probably home and asleep. Link check anyway. Eleven plinks waiting from friends now, and one from work. No one had flagged any messages urgent. Good. Normally he’d trawl through those links willingly at the end of a workday, but not today.
He said, “Grits, read to me, please. Just voice, no visuals. A story. Novel. Something maritime?”
Grits picked a book and began. “Call me Ishmael,” its voice began.
“Stop,” Ozzie said. “Something else. Something where not everyone ends up dead. Jesus, Grits. Have a heart. Another selection. And use the James Earl Jones voice.”
There was a brief pause. “As you wish. Try this one.” The deep and mellifluous voice in his ear said, “The year 1866 was marked by a bizarre development, an unexplained and downright inexplicable phenomenon that surely no one has forgotten. Without getting into those rumors that upset civilians in the seaports and deranged the public mind even far inland, it must be said that professional seamen were especially alarmed…”
“Pause. What is this?” Ozzie asked.
“It is by Jules Verne, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Some characters die,” Grits conceded, “but not so many as in the Melville.”
“It’ll do. Keep going.”
“…Traders, ship owners, captains of vessels, skippers, and master mariners from Europe and America, naval officers from every country, and at their heels the various national governments on these two continents, were all extremely disturbed by the business…” the voice continued.
When Grits detected pulse and respiration patterns of Ozzie sleeping, it stopped reading to him.
The rumbling from up on the main platform woke him. Outer Banks 1712 was opening up.
He shuffled up onto the platform, still pulling on his shirt, as the hangar roofs finished retracting. The solar collectors were about to begin unpacking, extending and unfurling themselves. The stars were out. Yesterday’s storms were far off, frothing some other part of the Atlantic.
In his years at SeaSol, he had been present for this whole process only once before. There wasn’t often a reason for a person to be out on a rig while it woke itself up after a storm.
Grits relayed to him the rig’s automated hazard warnings about heavy machinery in motion.
Ozzie was happily mesmerized for several minutes as four hectares of mirror-smooth surfaces formed an amphitheater around him. Much like the old clipper ships that used acres of sail to harness the collective push of tiny air molecules in motion, these offshore rigs used their collectors to amass and focus the heat energy from countless tiny photons from the sun.
Each hanger housed twenty precision controlled arms. Each arm telescoped and rotated out from the edge of the platform and unfurled about 500 square meters’ worth of reflective surface on curved spars. The arms and spars were designed to orient themselves in concert to focus light onto the dome at the center of the rig, where all that concentrated thermal energy would be put to work. There, the heat exchangers for the seawater distillation loop and the electrolysis power turbines awaited the energy to get back to work.
He felt as if he were on a playing field looking up at a huge, empty stadium surrounding him.
The arrays were tracking the brightest light source in the sky, which for the moment was the moon, nearly full and low in the west. Under the concentrated and focused moonlight, the surface of the rig’s central dome grew bright enough to make Ozzie squint. The rig wouldn’t really run on moonlight, wouldn’t bring its kettle to a boil as it were, but it could generate some warmth. Calories or BTUs were its life blood, and there were calories or BTUs to be had even in photons bounced from the moon.
Ozzie walked toward the dome, which would be a very unsafe action if the sun were up, and at the base of the dome he turned and looked back at the arrays, and his field of view was a tessellated horizon with more than 400 moons in the inky sky, each moon just above its rippling reflection in gentle swells. He could feel a gentle warmth as their light washed over him. Around the moons he could see the stars reflected again and again.
Photons from those stars had spent as much as 13 billion years at the speed of light on a journey of incalculable patience and determination, the Earth’s ocean in their sights, arrowing almost all the way to their destiny, and in the last tiny fraction of a millionth of a second they caromed off the solar arrays and into his retinas instead.
It was beyond lovely.
Ozzie thought of the boot prints that had been stomped into the lunar dust 120 years ago, by Armstrong and eleven other men. And his friend Pele was going to go cook up there in space, much farther from home than the moon was. It was a tempting adventure, out in the Ring, following in mama Earth’s giant footsteps around the sun. He was proud of Pele for having the guts to make a leap like that. And he was beginning to wonder if he should have that much guts.
After a few minutes of allowing himself to be a spectator, Ozzie got back to the job at hand. Ten minutes’ worth of checking at each corner of the rig showed that all of the arms and their reflector branches were within tolerances for alignment. The central dome’s storm panels were stowed, and the main and backup circulation pumps for working fluids were at idle, ready to be called into action.
Outer Banks 1712 was all dressed up and ready to go, just waiting for the sun to arrive. Ozzie checked the time. Grits informed him that sunrise was a couple of hours away. He also saw that he had dozens of short messages from his friends waiting in his plink folder, a typical morning’s worth, and still just one message in his work folder. He’d go through them later. For the moment he was still feeling a little sleepy, so he told Grits to wake him half an hour before sunrise, and slid back into his bunk.
He was hungry when Grits woke him. He decided against the various boxed rations, instead pulling two chocolate flavored protein drinks from the pantry’s rack. They didn’t really taste like chocolate, or like milk, or like any actual food. They tasted like something blended from a chemistry set to imitate chocolate in milk. He gulped them down, washed his hands and face, wuzzed his teeth, shaved, ran his fingers through his hair in lieu of brushing it, and put his toiletries kit and rain gear back in his travel bag.
He was up on deck ready to test the rig’s startup sequences 20 minutes before sunrise. The wisps of cloud on the eastern horizon were purple and magenta.
Outer Banks 1712 spent a few minutes telling Ozzie, by way of Grits, that it was fine.
Its onboard diagnostics station acknowledged that it had been shut down for four days, and avowed that the faulty weather module Ozzie replaced had been the cause of the problem.
The sensors on the rig were all fine, as far as Ozzie’s diagnostic instrument kit and the rig’s own monitors could tell. The sensors were providing accurate data on wind, barometric pressure, temperature, and humidity; on rig pitch and roll rates; on solar array tracking and synchronization; and on internal systems including capacities and pressures and temperatures in the various storage tanks far below the waterline. The sensors were ready to track turbine status, distillation and electrolysis as soon as some sunlight could be focused on the dome.
Ozzie trotted over to the spare weather module he had installed the previous night, and disconnected it, to simulate a failure of the module and to see how the rig would react. Grits kept him apprised as Outer Banks 1712 noted the failure almost immediately, and indicated it would begin to return to armadillo mode, first dispatching a quartet of inspection robots to be sure the hangar areas were clear so the rig could begin retracting the forest of solar array arms.
Through Grits, Ozzie then asked the rig’s triply redundant core to check the rig’s stores for replacement weather modules. Dutifully, the core found two spares in inventory – correctly noting that one of the spares, the one Ozzie had pulled the previous evening, was not present. Ozzie turned toward the maintenance garage and saw a maintenance robot wake up, rumble off and extract one of the two available spare modules. It removed the module Ozzie had disconnected, and installed the replacement, in less than three minutes.
Why, Ozzie wondered, didn’t the rig do that on its own four days ago? It should have known to check for replacement parts.
The clouds on the eastern horizon were bright pink when the maintenance robot returned to the garage as the new spare weather module woke up normally, quickly concurring with the other two weather packages on all parameters vital to rig readiness, and Outer Banks 1712 cancelled the plan to re-enter armadillo mode and pronounced itself ready for operation.
Ozzie did not have a good feeling about why this rig had shut itself down.
It reported that it was now perfectly healthy, but it did not understand that it had misbehaved, did not understand it had erred by commanding an armadillo mode condition instead of replacing a simple weather module.
Clearly, Ozzie thought, this rig might go back into armadillo mode for no good reason as soon as he flew back to the mainland.
His recommendation for Nora would be a complete core swap, a brain transplant for all three of the rig’s command computing systems. They could try to find the decision-making flaws in the old core back on the mainland.
He knew that SeaSol was unlikely to agree; they would not want to send him right back here with a full brain transplant for the rig. Those were expensive. His recommendation would probably get diluted on its way up the chain of command through Nora and a series of managers. They’d probably settle on a wait-and-see mode in the hope that SeaSol could get another year or two from Outer Banks 1712 without pumping cash into it, other than slapping paint on it to keep nature’s relentless corrosion and abrasion at bay.
Maybe it would keep filling its legs with ton after ton of H2 and O2. They’d collect the fruits of its automated labor in their signature tri-hull tankers. They’d postpone the expense of a brain transplant until the rig did something unexpected, again to interfere with the cash flow. Wait-and-see might be a good call.
Then again, maybe the rig did have a faulty core, and maybe its faulty move next time would be too brash instead of too timid. Ozzie looked around him. What if the rig decided to keep this whole forest of fragile solar arrays deployed despite the arrival of a serious storm? That would trash four hectares of very expensive control arms and reflectors, damage that would make installing a new core look cheap by comparison. The rig would have to be brought in to shore, and a real human harbor pilot would actually have to take the controls in that puny little bridge to nudge the unwieldy rig into Newport News for refitting.
It wasn’t Ozzie’s decision to make. He would write up his recommendation. Someone above his pay grade would act on it, or not.
The eastern horizon was turning orange; the sun was about to appear.
Ozzie had one last standard rig check to run. He pulled several test mannequins from a topside safety equipment locker and placed them well inside the daytime hot zone, next to the central dome, one mannequin standing and the others supine on the deck. They would simulate an inattentive or injured maintenance crew.
As the sun’s disc broke the horizon, klaxons sounded alarms across the platform, and lights flashed red to warn of the impending high-temperature phase of rig operations. Fences rose from the deck, separating the safe areas around the platform perimeter from the danger areas at the center. Grits also picked up a warning message sent to any omnis in range, and read Ozzie the standard script about staying clear of the center of the platform.
Ozzie asked Grits to relay any status messages from the rig about whether the operations deck was clear. Grits replied as the rig’s ultrasonic, laser and pressure sensors all detected the mannequins. The rig correctly reset the collectors, tilting them up so they focused the sun’s light safely above the central dome, while a maintenance robot wheeled across the platform and approached the mannequins, blaring a warning as it went. It took less than a minute for the robot to determine they were not unconscious people or people in distress, to determine that they showed no signs of pulse or respiration, and to further correctly classify them as test mannequins. It collected them and returned them to the appropriate safety locker, then went back to its parking spot. All according to specs, Ozzie noted. These rigs occasionally charred a gull or petrel that flew into the lethal energy of the collected and focused sun’s rays, but no rig had roasted a person.
The rig’s ops station soon showed all green lights, and the collectors swung into working position. As they did so, the central dome was bathed in brighter and brighter light, until it hurt Ozzie’s eyes to look at it. Ozzie watched over the various displays as Outer Banks 1712 restarted the hydrogen production sequence.
Ozzie knew that after several days of inactivity, the initial steam generation would be pretty rapid but it would take Outer Banks 1712 a few hours of sunlight operations to get the main heat sinks, essentially giant reservoirs of molten salts, back to their optimum temperature of about 900 degrees Celsius. Those heat sinks were the key to nighttime hydrogen production, storing enough heat to keep the rig’s steam plant running from sundown to sunup. He’d know by noon whether that part of the rig’s energy budget was back at full strength.
He took a break and went to the head, and as he was sitting there for a few minutes he asked Grits to review his messages. “Work first, then plinks,” he said. “Oldest first.”
The first of four work messages was from his colleague Larry Lao, who had linked in last night with a simple question about files they shared back in Charlotte, a question which Larry could have answered himself if he took a bit more initiative. Ozzie decided that could wait until he got back to the office.
The next message was from Theresa Lopez, the most beautiful and most profane of his Charlotte coworkers. She was fuming. “Ozzie, I don’t fucking believe this. And to use Jeeves – fucking Jeeves – to do it. And to have it sent straight to the message queue, so I couldn’t even yell at his goddamn plastic face. Fuckers have no balls at all. Call me.” Ozzie had no clue what was upsetting her. Jeeves was not a person, but a roboface SeaSol used to take calls, handle simple errands inside the office and coordinate with similar robofaces at all the other SeaSol branches.
Ozzie’s third message was from Jeeves, who said, “Oswaldo Lang: I regret to inform you that your employment with SeaSol has been terminated as of today. The company felt it necessary to cut payroll by six percent, and rather than face suspicion that managers terminated employees for improper reasons, the company elected to make random cuts across all job descriptions and salaries up to the vice president level. We understand you are offsite. A helicopter will pick you up between 7:00 and 8:00 this morning. Nora Petty will see you in her Charlotte office at 12:15 to discuss severance and career assistance.”
As Jeeves’s image faded away, Ozzie heard, through the ceiling of the head, the distinctive whupping patter of the promised helo in the distance. He felt short of breath. His heart was racing.
He asked Grits to repeat the message, but he didn’t think he had heard anything incorrectly. He hadn’t heard it wrong.
He had been fired, by a robot, while on the toilet.
The next message in the work queue was from Nora. He could guess what that was about. He let it sit. He wanted some time to think, but he needed to grab his gear. The helo was close if he could hear it from inside the head. It would be on the rig in a minute.
“Hold the plinks, Grits. No time for them. Later.”
He gathered his bags and walked to the landing circle on Outer Banks 1712 in a daze, shocked at how much it hurt to be fired from a job he had often told his friends was dull and obsolete. The call from Jeeves had knocked the wind out of him. Fired? By random selection in some employee database?
The thought echoed around in his head like a bell tolling, keeping other thoughts from getting any traction. He did note that all the solar reflectors nearest the helipad were furled, as they should be in expectation of the rotor wash from the helicopter.
Fired. He had been fired.
The pilot, the same woman who had flown him out to the rig yesterday, seemed cheerful and unaware of his situation. She offered some light banter about how the rig looked much happier today, and Ozzie managed a couple halfhearted grunts in reply. She was not one of the six percent to be fired, evidently. Or maybe she was, but didn’t know yet. She gave him the standard safety equipment drill, checked that the cabin intercom was able to make a priority link with Grits if need be, whapped him on the shoulder cheerfully and slid the cabin door shut. A minute later, they were airborne. He looked back to watch as the solar arrays unfurled below them after she lifted off and cleared the rig.
Outer Banks 1712 was working pretty well. It hadn’t been fired. Ozzie had. Ozzie thought to himself, his recommendation of a core swap wouldn’t count for much today, if SeaSol even asked him his opinion.
The rising sun at his back and Cape Hatteras ahead, the surface of the Atlantic glistening below, Ozzie rode alone in the passenger cabin of the SeaSol helo.
Ozzie was not sure what his first move should be. For lack of a better idea, and perhaps in hope of hearing some uncritical reassurance, he blinked open a link to his father.
“Ozzie, how are you? Where are you, son? Sounds noisy.”
“I’m in a SeaSol helicopter flying back to Charlotte from a rig offshore, dad. And I have had better days. Listen… I just heard that I have been fired, or laid off, or whatever. Terminated. They cut the workforce, and I was one of the cuts.”
His father turned and said “It’s Ozzie, Patty.” Looking back at Ozzie, he said, “Link your mother in, son.”
Ozzie did, and told his mother the news. “I don’t have a reason why from SeaSol, mom. They just said they were cutting the workforce by six percent and they picked people at random from all around the company. I don’t know whether to believe that or if they’re just trying not to hurt people’s feelings…”
“Oh, Waldo, I am so sorry, sweetie,” she said. His mother was the only person who called him Waldo. She gave him a wan smile. “It will all work out okay. I know it will. You’re a great catch for any company.”
“Your mother’s right. You’ll find something better, I mean, a better job, in no time,” said his dad. “But you can come back here and stay with us if you need to, while you look.”
There was a long pause.
“I don’t know what else…” Ozzie began and then paused again. “I don’t have much else to say, really. I just wanted to let you know. I have to meet with Nora when I get back to Charlotte. Personnel stuff, I guess. I don’t know what the deal is, really. I don’t know if there’s much severance. The apartment is paid through the end of the month…”
“Waldo, don’t worry. We’re here for you,” his mother said. His father put his arm around her.
“Thanks, mom… dad. Sorry to throw bad news at you. I’ll… well, when I know more, I’ll call again.”
“You do that, son. Sorry it’s such a hard day. Come see us tonight if you feel like it.”
They said their goodbyes and disconnected.
Ozzie blinked his way through a few of his overnight messages, but none raised his spirits and his heart wasn’t in it.
He remembered that Theresa wanted him to call. And so did Nora, probably.
Eeeny, meeny, screw it, he called Theresa.
Nora could wait. Or she could bloody well call him again.
There are the us of family and village, and there are the them, and people are hard-wired to avoid being completely alone, and to prefer the us, and to exclude the them, but cities are profoundly inhuman in scale, so in cities the norm is to bump elbows with the them.
Ozzie looked at SeaSol’s windows from two blocks away….
[end free preview.]
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