OIL IN WATER
The crane dropped Hart on deck sixteen minutes later, lugging his diving gear and sporting a big smile across his fine, chiseled features.
“What the hell happened to you?” Mahajan asked.
“Nothing,” Hart replied
“You look like the Cheshire cat,” Mahajan said.
Hart stared at a pile of dive rigs wound meticulously in concentric circles, a diver’s lifeline in deep waters. “I didn’t think you…. Never mind. It’s good to be back.”
Mahajan clapped Hart on the back. “Alright. Let’s do it.” Mahajan walked to the bow of the boat with Hart tight on his heels.
“What are you looking for Boss?” said Smith, Hart’s radio man.
Hart stood in the middle of the boat in his underwear, looking over his shoulder. “Believe it or not, I was looking for a woman.”
A ripple of amusement ran through the men surrounding him.
“So do we just about every night,” said Tom, one of Hart’s two tenders who held Hart’s diving helmet.
“Yeah, you skanks in the T.V. room, watching the porn channel ‘til your eyes just about bleed. Think maybe you’d have something better to do,” said Nelson, the other tender who held Hart’s neoprene diving suit.
“Were you looking for a particular woman?” Ian asked. At twenty-one, Ian was the was the youngest guy on board and painfully shy, a fact the rest of the handlers did not fail to notice.
“Oh, I think anyone would do,” Tom said. The rest of the handlers guffawed to the point of breathlessness. Ian blushed crimson.
“Well, the nearest one’s a ten-hour boat ride from here,” said Tom, looking forlorn.
“Unless you’re thinking about flying one out,” interjected Nelson. “It’ll only cost you a few hundred bucks and your job tomorrow. Well, probably not you, Boss.”
“Never mind. I forgot where I was for a minute,” Hart said, whipping off his briefs. He twirled them overhead, like a stripper, and tossed them on deck.
“Better watch, Boss,” Tom said.. “Nelson sleepwalks. Might mistake you for a chickie some night he’s walking the decks with his eyes rolled back in his head.” Peals of laughter rolled out in all directions.
Mahajan appeared suddenly by Hart’s side and the laughter rippled into silence.
“All right, gentlemen. Let’s get serious. No matter how many times you’ve done this, things can always go wrong. This guy’s gonna be three hundred feet below sea level and not a one of you wants to be responsible if his gear’s not singing a happy tune when he goes under. Snap to it. I want everything checked and double-checked and checked again.”
As if preparing for battle, a naked Hart allowed the handlers to dress him. Had there been a woman within fifty miles of the platform it wouldn’t have mattered. On deck, modesty went out the window.
Tom held Hart’s neoprene diving suit open and Hart slid in a leg at a time feeling the cool second skin as the surreal fabric sprung to life. The neoprene fit snugly without strangling the occupant, making underwear a redundancy. A thrill shot through Hart’s solar plexus as he zipped the suit up the front.
In very cold waters, the tenders would pump warm water through a second umbilical attached directly to the suit, eliminating the risk of hypothermia. In the Gulf in October, though, the waters were still relatively warm. Still, at three hundred feet down where the sun didn’t shine and the currents were strong, it was better to be prepared. Speed and efficiency were paramount.
Tom wrapped a sixty-pound weight belt around Hart’s waist, adjusted the harness holding his mixed-gas tank and pronounced Hart dive-ready.
Lastly, Hart put his helmet on, all thirty-five pounds of it, and snapped it into place. He adjusted the regulator and the umbilical and tightened the valves on the helmet. He donned his gloves and stood, arms akimbo, looking at Mahajan and the rest of his handlers and smiling. He said something into his helmet that no one but Smith, his radio guy could hear.
“What did he say?” Mahajan asked.
“He said, ‘Ask Mahajan how I look?” Smith said smiling.
“Like Superman,” Mahajan replied. “Tell him whenever he’s ready.” He took off his own harness and handed it to Ian, the greenhorn.
“Mahajan says to fly whenever you’re ready, Superman,” Smith radioed into Hart’s helmet.
Hart flashed the thumbs up, stepped to the front of the railing and in one graceful movement he was over the side and beneath the surface of the sea.
The first ten minutes in the water were always the worst. Water cascaded with an agonizing slowness down Hart’s back as it thoroughly soaked his dry wet suit. Hart swam, lazy at first, enjoying the feel of buoyancy despite the heavy gear. He made his way toward the small buoy that tethered a fifty-pound weight at the bottom of the three hundred foot line. He found the rope and used it to guide himself to the bottom. The first hundred feet were a cakewalk, but when Hart hit the one hundred and twenty foot mark, his vision started to crowd in on itself and for a minute he felt nauseated. Hart’s pride – and perhaps more than a bit of the arrogance indigenous to the commercial diving profession – kept him from asking Smith to switch over to mixed gas.
“Hey, Boss?” Smith barked into Hart’s helmet.
“Yo,” Hart replied.
“You’re cooing like a morning dove. You’re not going to pass out on me, are you?”
“Nah, I’m fine. I could go another fifty or sixty feet.”
“Well, just the same. A couple hundred bucks is not going to make Akanabi’s stock prices jump much. I’m switching you over. Hit your free flow valve and purge the umbilical. Let me know when you feel the gas.”
Despite the dark waters, Hart instinctively grabbed the valve. Images of Sonia and the baby floated in his mind’s eye, on the periphery, just slightly out of reach. Hart tried to focus on them, but they eluded him: chimeras in the dark. He cranked the valve hard. Cool air immediately washed over his face and out the exhaust ports under his chin and at his left cheek. Hart tried to mentally count, thirty, twenty-nine, twenty-eight, twenty-seven, but soon lost the thread and settled for mindless waiting. About twenty-five seconds later, the sound of incoming air shifted to a soft, higher-pitched squeal, indicating the change to mixed gas. Hart shut down the free flow valve and made a minor adjustment to his regulator, the dial-a-breath, or “dial-a-death” as the more cynical divers called it.
The mixed gas worked like a wonder drug and the cobwebs that had settled around his grey matter, clouding his synapses, floated farther away with each breath. His eyesight returned to normal. He saw Sonia’s smiling face float by his left eye before she disappeared.
“Boss. I don’t hear you,” Smith said in sing-song fashion. “D’ya find it okay?” Hart’s fingers made a final adjustment to his regulator.
“Yeah,” he croaked, and cleared his throat. “I’m good.”
“I knew you would be,” came Smith’s reply.
Hart’s hands grasped the line loosely as he allowed the sixty pound weight around his waist to pull him languorously to the bottom. By about a hundred and fifty feet there was no sunlight left to speak of, Hart’s headlamp being the only source of illumination in the murky, churning water.
“Pretty thick down here, Smithsteen,” Hart noted. “You can’t see past your ass.”
“Yeah, well, write when you get work. Meanwhile, I’m up here sweatin’ my balls off.”
“I don’t know if I’d consider chatting me up on the radio, working, Smithy,” Hart said, and thoroughly suffused with mixed gas, he continued his descent.
Two hundred feet down the road, Stu fumbled with a change-out on a battered Christmas tree valve. A small amount of oil trickled from the barnacle-covered steel and Stu could faintly make out the area underneath where a valve on the back-flow preventor had worn thin, eroded over time by rust, saltwater and marine growth. He pulled a screwdriver from his harness and scraped at the barnacles and rust chunks, brushing them away with a gloved hand as he wrenched the tenacious little buggers free. He grabbed his waterblaster and blasted the crap out of them, removing maybe half. Oil squirted out in a steady, thin rivulet, momentarily suspended in time before it rose up and eloped with the current.
“I found it,” Stu said to Ted, his comms guy. “I got the leak. Valve on the back-flow preventor’s shot. I need to clean it off before I can change it out.” Stu scraped at the rust and barnacles revealing a number of cylindrical shapes above the offending valve. He counted them, then advised Ted. “Of course, it’s the last Goddamn valve on a series of four. And they all look like remnants of the Titanic.”
Stu frowned and scraped diligently at the marine growth and other aquatic debris covering the valves like a point guard. After twenty minutes, he’d only progressed halfway; the frustration meter was rising. He pulled out a wrench to loosen the first valves, but they were stuck fast so he gave them a few quick whacks. The pounding didn’t have the same force and effect as it would on dry land, but it made Stu feel better.
“Whoever put the cathode protection on this unit didn’t do such a good job,” he muttered, more to himself than Ted. The seeping oil floated up to his headlamp, obstructing his vision. Irritated, he swished his hand in front of his headlamp, but only a foggy illumination returned.
“Now what?” Ted crackled through the umbilical into Stu’s helmet.
“My Goddamn face plate’s all fogged up.” Stu opened the free flow valve on his helmet and a rush of air flowed through the exhaust port flaps, clearing Stu’s face plate as it went.
“Stu, you sound a little agitated this morning. Anything I can do?” Ted replied.
“Unless you can get me out of here by tonight, the answer to that would be Goddamn no!” Stu said with more emphasis than Ted had expected.
“What’s the problem, Boss? Too long away from the wife?” Ted asked, joking. The reverberation shot through the umbilical as Stu pounded on the recalcitrant valve.
“Tomorrow’s my daughter’s first birthday and I’m stuck on the ocean floor fixing a Goddamn backflow protector that should have had a shelf life of five to ten years, but because of some jerk off’s shoddy workmanship has rusted out in twelve months.”
“Oh,” was all Ted could manage.
In contrast to the sheer blackness of the ocean bottom, on deck, the sky was wide and bright with patches of cumulus clouds interspersed for good measure. Mahajan stood next to Ted making notes on a clipboard. He had heard every word, and cracked a half-smile, without looking up from his work.
“Tell him, he fixes the leak and I chopper him out tonight,” Mahajan said.
“What about the rest of the inspection?”
“Hart and I’ll do it.”
“You supposed to be getting wet?” Ted asked. “Who’s gonna hold down the fort?”
“I don’t know yet. You maybe. I got another comms guy on board maybe can take your place at the radio.” He looked at Ted who smiled wide. “Hart said I’m too long out of water. That my reflexes are slow .” He said the last word as if it were floating through water. “I need to make sure he’s not right.” He jerked his head in the direction of the communications system and Ted returned to the task at hand.
“Yo, Stu. Boss says you fix the leak and you’ll be home in time to help her blow out the candles,” Ted relayed.
“Wit-woo!” Stu said, and Ted heard the pounding and banging efforts redoubled.
Ten minutes later, Stu had the top two valves off and was working on removing the flow regulator, scraping at the bigger rust chunks and other aquatic debris with a screw driver. He tried loosening it with his wrench, but it wouldn’t budge. He shot it with the water blaster. Barnacles, rust and other debris swirled in a million directions. Stu waited until the water cleared, then, low on patience, he drew his arm back and hit the free flow with as much force as he could muster. The second before the wrench hit the valve, Stu knew it was the wrong thing to do. The shock severed the gas line which split wide open, spewing natural gas straight at him with the force of an oncoming freight train. Stu was propelled through sheer blackness some seventy-five feet from the Christmas tree. He landed with a thud in a pile of discarded metal cabling long since left to rust on the bottom.
“What’s happening down there, man. Sounds like a demolition derby?” Jason asked, peering over the railing. Stu’s umbilical dangled languidly from his hand.
“The valves are stuck.” Ted said eyeballing Jason. “Stu’s trying to beat them into submission.” He watched Jason staring wistfully out to sea.
“How long do you think it’ll be until I get down there?” Jason asked.
“A pretty damn long time, especially if you don’t keep your eye on that umbilical,” Ted replied.
Jason glanced down. The line had spiraled out and now looked like a slalom course on the surface of the sea. He pulled it in, dropping it onto the deck in concentric circles as he did, but couldn’t find the drag. He dropped the umbilical the moment it ripped through his hands.
“Jesus Christ,” he said, looking down. His hands were red as if burned.
Mahajan sprung to life. He looked over the side, but the line had gone slack again. He snapped his fingers at Ted who immediately radioed Stu while Mahajan pulled in the line.
“He’s offline,” Ted said. Mahajan had twenty-two years experience as a diver, five of them as the chief overseer of diving operations, and he’d seen just about everything: clogged umbilicals; hypothermia; faulty radio gear; emotional breakdowns, generally brought on by a sudden paronoid fear of being isolated several hundred feet below sea level; even a shark bite; all of which had reinforced his belief in the need to act purposefully and remain calm even in the most dire situations. There were myriad reasons why the signal might be lost. And an experienced diver like Stu should be able to fix the problem and be back on line for as long as he could hold his breath, which in Stu’s case was about two minutes.
“Stu. Do you copy? What the heck’s going on?” Ted’s voice quavered a little before he yelled into the radio. Mahajan checked his watch. “Stu. Stu!” Ted looked wide-eyed at Mahajan who snapped his fingers in Smith’s direction.
“Tell Hart we got a problem,” Mahajan said to Smith. But before Smith could open his mouth, Ted’s radio crackled to life.
Stu laid there for several moments in utter darkness, stunned. He drew a deep breath and reached for his head lamp. Duct-taped to his helmet for hands-free operating, it had been knocked loose in the blast and now dangled from his helmet, secured by only the barest remnant of the sticky stuff. He fumbled for the switch which had been turned off in what, Stu wasn’t exactly sure.
He flicked on the light and it illuminated the immediate area, sending out light beams at a forty-five degree angle. Sight restored, Stu moved his arms, then his legs. Both appeared to be in working order. He raised himself on one elbow. Piles of metal coils, old cabling line, he presumed, lay beneath him covered with spiny oysters. The air in his helmet felt a little thick and he took a long pull trying to get a full breath.
“Jesus Christ!” Stu said. He maneuvered into a sitting position and rotated his shoulders and his neck. His body parts all seemed to be in working order, but he felt as though he’d been catapulted from a large sling shot and hurtled against a solid brick wall. He checked his harness. Still secure . He reached back and touched his mother pleaser. Thank God.
A voice crackled into his helmet, barely audible through the static.
“Stu. Stu! What’s going on? Do you copy? Over.” Stu could make out Ted’s voice, rife with static, a million light years away.
“I’m here…just lounging around,” Stu said, his breath coming in jagged bursts.
“What the hell happened?”
“The gas pipe blew. Farther than I’d care to guesstimate.” Stu groped in the dark, pulling at the umbilical that floated freely away from him, trying to reign it in. The radio snapped and popped as he did so.
“What the hell are you doing,” Ted shouted. “You’re killin’ me.”
“I’m pullin’ in my umbilical. It’s all over the place.” Stu pulled the umbilical slowly through his gloved hand until the line went taut. He took another jagged breath, ripped his flashlight from his helmet and swam along the line, pulling as he went until he got to the problem. The line had snagged in the same pile of cabling where Stu had landed. There was a small gash in the spot where it stuck. “Damn.” He took another raspy breath.
“What,” Ted replied.
“The umbilical’s severed. That’s why you sound like you’re transmitting from Venus.” He took a deep, unsatisfying breath and cranked his dial-a-breath out to keep up with the diminishing pressure. And why I’m having trouble breathing .
“There’s no way I’m gettin’ to the top with this line,” Stu said.
“Any idea where you are?”
“No. There’s a bunch of old cable line on the floor, is all.”
“All right, sit tight. We’re gonna raise Hart and get you another line. Try not to move that one too much. I don’t want to lose radio contact,” Ted said.
“How long, do you think?”
There was a pause before Ted’s voice crackled through. “Twenty, maybe twenty-five minutes.”
Stu took a labored breath and this time water seeped in through the free flow.
“Your tank’s full if you need it, right?” Ted asked. Stu didn’t respond. “Right?” Ted persisted.
The water level in Stu’s helmet was already to his Adams apple. “I got water seeping into my helmet.”
There was a long pause on the other end before Ted’s voice came through, tinny and strange as if from outer space.
“Mahajan wants to know if you got any duct tape from your flashlight.” Stu reached up and yanked free the last remaining piece of duct tape.
“Not much,” he replied.
“Well wrap what you got around the leak and see if you can slow it down. We gotta keep your radio on as long as possible.” Stu wrapped the duct tape around the hose. It slowed the leak, but not enough to give him comfort.
“Alright. But I’m still sucking pretty hard,” Stu said. “And it’s still spittin’ in here.”
“Hold on a minute,” Ted went offline and Stu was left with the curious feeling that he was the only man on earth. The crackling in his helmet signaled Ted’s return.
“Alright. You got the air in your tank. Hold out for as long as you can before you cut the cord just to buy an extra minute or two, then switch over. And Stu, I need to know the exact time you cut it so I can time it.”
Time how long I have left, you mean. Stu listened patiently as the water drip-dropped into his helmet, now just below his mouthpiece. He could feel the head liner getting soaked. Soon he would lose all communication with the outside world. Then the water would be up to his mouth and the amount of air in his helmet might be insufficient to support him. He’d have to turn his bottle on and blow the water out.
“You know that adage about not taking your helmet off underwater or it’ll be the last thing you do? Well, I’m gonna have to if I don’t cut this umbilical right now,” Stu said calmly as the water trickled in. He heard Ted sigh and go offline again. Stu’s head felt light as the available air in his helmet shrunk.
“Okay. Mahajan says switch over to your tank, but do not, I repeat, do not let the umbilical go. After ten minutes, start climbing your line. Remember to time it. Only one foot per second. And if you can manage, roll your flashlight up and back like a search light. Hart’ll meet you with a new umbilical.” Stu was feeling lightheaded from the lack of air. He nodded but did not respond, prompting Ted to yell.
“Stu!” The noise roused Stu from his reverie.
“Yeah,” he said, snapping to alertness. “Okay. I’m gonna cut it now.”
“Really, man. Don’t let go of the umbilical and swim straight up. You only got twenty guaranteed minutes!”
“Don’t worry, man. I’m not into playin’ hero today,” Stu replied. It was the last thing he said before radio communication went dead.
“Shoot,” Smith said.
“What is it?” Hart’s reply came through the radio.
Up on the deck of the Poseidon , chaos loomed, threatening a coup, but Mahajan’s cool exterior and the combined experience of the handlers kept it safely off the bow – for the moment. Mahajan stood waiting patiently next to Smith as he radioed Hart his instructions. He looked at his watch as the second hand flew around the dial. A minute and a half had already elapsed.
We got a problem,” Smith barked into the phone. “Quit your descent and hold the position. I’ll be back in twenty seconds.”
Nelson and Tom materialized at Mahajan’s side with a backup umbilical.
“Tell him to come back up pronto,” Mahajan said to Smith. “Follow the tow line. Somebody’ll meet him at the surface with a new umbilical for Stu.” Mahajan stared at the umbilical as if making a decision. Smith pressed the button and called Hart.
“Wait,” Mahajan said. Cancel that last part. Tell him I’ll meet him at fifty feet with the umbilical,” Mahajan said. Smith’s eyebrows shot up and Mahajan responded to his unspoken query. “It’ll only take me a few minutes to meet him part way. Stu may need those minutes.”
“You gonna suit up?” Smith asked. Mahajan shook his head.
“Get me some goggles, fast” he said to Ian. “There’s some in the supply room.”
“Boss, are you sure? It’s only an extra couple minutes to the surface from fifty feet,” Smith said.
“Yeah, but Hart’ll pay for it later with the bends. Even if he’s only up here for a few minutes.”
Mahajan removed his shoes, adjusted his harness and walked over to Sam who stood calibrating the three-cylinder diesel backup compressor system to which he had just hooked the new umbilical. A second backup compressor sat next to it.
“I thought it would be cleaner than disengaging Stu’s original hose,” Sam said by way of explanation.
Mahajan glanced at the two nine-tank cascade systems which currently serviced Hart’s working hose and Stu’s severed one. The cascade systems, comprised of nine tanks each, had their own control valves that ultimately tied into a single manifold operation. Both systems had three rows of three tanks encased in a special frame. The tanks weighed over a hundred pounds each – with the frame, one system approached a thousand pounds – and was so weighty it could only be set on deck by crane or helicopter. The combined weight of the two cascade systems and the back up compressors which sat now, gleaming in the sun, was more than that of all of the handlers put together.
“If for some strange reason something happens, switch over to the cascade system servicing Stu’s severed hose, not the backup compressor.”
“Okay, Boss,” Sam replied.
Mahajan turned his back to Sam. “Check my tank one more time, would you?”
Sam checked the pressure gauge and opened the valve. A brief spurt of air whistled out before he closed it. “Good to go,” Sam said.
Ian ran up and handed Mahajan a pair of goggles which he took and adjusted to his face.
“Hart knows what’s going on?” he asked Smith.
Smith nodded. “He’s on his way up. He’ll meet you at the T-Bar.”
“Alright, gentlemen. Smith’s in charge. You’re on your own until I return. Make me proud,” he said, a wry, half-smile on his face. And clothed in nothing but Levi’s and a t-shirt, Andrew Mahajan stuck his umbilical in his mouth and jumped over the side of the bow, an emergency umbilical trailing behind him.
Radio communication died abruptly and, as promised, remained out for the next sixty-three seconds. In the sensory deprived world of underwater diving, even ten seconds ticked on into eternity. Sonia’s smiling face floated in front of Hart’s retinas again, but this time he pushed her away. Not now , he whispered to her. He squeezed his gloved hands into balls and concentrated on his grip, squeezing and releasing while waiting for his instructions. When they came, Hart was focused and ready.
“Yo, Boss,” Smith’s voice was steady and in control.
“Smithsteen,” Hart replied. “I was beginning to think I’d been replaced on your dance card.” Hart said.
Smith chuckled. “Stu’s hose’s severed. There was a pipeline break and he went for a ride. He’s offline. Mahajan’s meeting you at the T-Bar with a spare hose.”
“Why’s he doing that?”
“Worried about the bends. And Stu’s not sure where he is right now so you gotta follow his umbilical down. Mahajan’ll have the new one at the T-Bar.”
“All right,” Hart said.
“Check your watch,” Smith said. Hart set his second hand. “In about seven minutes, Stu’s going to start climbing his hose. With some luck he’ll be meeting you halfway. Over.” Hart immediately started his ascent. “Sonia used to say something about luck.”
“That next to love, it was the second most powerful force in the universe.” Hart pulled himself up the rope, hand over hand, using the umbilical. “Do you know me to be a lucky man, Smith?” Hart asked.
“Looking back on your history, I’d have to say yes, Boss. I know you to be a very lucky man.” He paused before continuing. “It’s the people around you that aren’t always so lucky.” Hart sniggered, but said nothing.
“One more thing, Boss. You realize you gotta do the change over in free float cause by then Stu should be a hundred or more feet off the bottom,” Smith continued. “You can handle that, right?”
“Smithy, who you talkin’ to?” Hart joked. But his stomach had a different thing to say and Hart felt it lurch down into the vicinity of his toes even as he climbed. He took a deep breath and soldiered on toward the T-Bar.
“Alright. Tell Mahajan I’ll see him at the bar.
“I would if he had a comms system on,” Smith said.
The air must be getting pretty thick up there, too . Hart gripped the tow line hard and pulled for all he was worth.
When Hart arrived, Mahajan was lounging on the T-Bar at the marker buoy like a passenger on a cruise ship waiting on cocktails. He sat up when he saw Hart and spread his palms wide as if to say, what took you so long . Hart flipped him the bird, tough to do with such large gloves, and grabbed both the spare and severed hose from Mahajan. Mahajan grabbed the spare hose back and attached it to the snap shackle on Hart’s harness so he wouldn’t have to hold it.
Mahajan pointed to his watch and held up five fingers and a fist.
Five minutes left in Stu’s tank .
Mahajan removed his mouthpiece and mouthed the words “you alright?” Hart nodded. Mahajan gave him the thumbs up, slapped him on the back of his spare tank, and pushed him in the direction of the deep.
Hart moved off the T-Bar and gave Stu’s severed rope a little tug, but the rope was slack, suggesting the end floated unencumbered. Hart hoped that wasn’t the case as he dropped through the blackness, pulled down by the sixty pound belt weight around his waist, trying not to pull too hard on the severed umbilical lest he wrench it from Stu’s unsuspecting grip.
Other than his own breathing, Hart heard nothing. Occasionally he’d spot a fish, sleek and shimmery, its bulging eyes turning away to avoid the harsh headlight.
“Got anything yet,” Smith’s voice crackled to life in Hart’s helmet.
“Not unless you count a school of mackerel,” Hart replied.
“Stu’s gonna be rockin’ his light back and forth. Just in case he lost the….” Smith’s voice trailed off into oblivion.
“I’m on it, Smithy. Don’t worry about it.”
Hart checked his watch. Two minutes and fifty-five seconds elapsed. He redoubled his efforts, pulling harder on the rope, and this time the rope went taut with a slight tug from the other end. Hart stopped and gave the rope three jerks, a signal he and Stu had used on previous dives. The rope jerked back three times. Stu was at the other end.
“I got tension on the line,” Hart relayed to Smith. Hart gave another tug at the rope to let Stu know he was coming and lurched forward at full throttle.
“I can see a glow,” Hart said into his mouthpiece. The beam from Stu’s headlamp moved back and forth like a search light. “Almost there.”
The two men, both proficient swimmers, moved toward each other in a graceful, underwater ballet of brass, belts and tubing. Each pulled on the umbilical and kicked, moving closer together until their gloved hands grasped and they were intertwined. Hart held Stu in an awkward bear hug, as Stu collapsed against Hart in relief. They began to spin, then sink with the combined weight of their belts and gear. Hart let go of Stu and disengaged the new umbilical from his harness. The severed umbilical floated free.
“I got him,” Hart radioed to Smith. “You can pull the old dive rig in.” Almost immediately, the severed umbilical began rising to the surface.
“I’ll hold my congratulations, Boss. You don’t have much time for the change out,” Smith said.
Hart looked at his watch as Stu swam over to join him on the rope. A minute, fifty seconds . Hart pulled Stu closer and looked inside his helmet. The water had risen to just below Stu’s chin, but no further. Hart placed the forehead of his own helmet against Stu’s, locked his hands on the sides and looked into Stu’s eyes as if they were a pair of reunited lovers. Hart spoke loudly, the combination of voice and vibration making it possible for the men to hear each other through their helmets.
“How much air you got left in your bailout bottle?” Hart asked.
“About a thousand pounds,” Stu replied, confirming what Smith had alluded to.
“You know there’s no way for us to share air, right?” Hart asked. The words reverberated through their helmets, all choppy and tinny. Stu nodded. “Let me know when you’re getting down to the wire. Maybe there’s something else we can do,” Hart said.
Stu’s eyebrows shot up. “I’m not taking my helmet off,” Stu said emphatically.
Hart nodded. Stu could take his helmet off and suck air from Hart’s exhaust port all the way up, but chances were, if Stu took his helmet off he wouldn’t make it to the top.
“Can you still hold your breath for two minutes?” Hart asked. A broad smile lit Stu’s face.
“You bet your ass, ” Stu said.
“We gotta change you out right here,” he said, indicating Stu’s new umbilical. “Wrap your legs around my waist and hold tight to my harness.”
Stu complied. Hart grabbed the new umbilical back from Stu and wrapped it around both of them, tied a slipknot and clipped it to the quick release on his harness. They looked like underwater koala bears. Hart touched his helmet back to Stu’s.
“Keep one hand on the umbilical. We’ll probably going to spin a lot since we’re not anchored. Just keep your legs locked on me and we’ll get through this, okay?”
“Okay, Boss,” Stu said.
Hart patted Stu’s helmet. To Smith, Hart said: “I’m gonna loosen the compression fitting on the cut hose first. The tricky part’ll be getting the new one in.” He touched his helmet to Stu’s once again and said, “Hold on.” He checked his watch before setting to work. One minutes fifteen seconds .
Hart loosened the fitting holding the remnants of the severed umbilical, gave the hose a tug and set it free. It traveled past his face plate then beyond his periphery vision. He removed the stub of the schrader fitting – the check valve was the only thing keeping the water out – and inserted a new fitting. The movement caused them to spin like kids on a tire swing and the uncontrolled motion made Hart queasy. Forty-nine seconds. He touched his helmet to Stu’s.
“A little dazed. Getting tough to breath.”
For the first time Hart noticed Stu’s labored breaths. The pressure gauge on Stu’s tank read zero. “I’m gonna hook the hose in now. Hold tight to my harness.”
Smith’s voice crackled to life in Hart’s helmet and Hart lifted his head. “What’s happening down there?”
“Hold on. I’m doing the new umbilical,” Hart said to Smith. He checked his watch. Thirty-five seconds. He touched his helmet to Stu’s.
“Take the biggest breath you can now. Dial your regulator all the way out and suck all the air out of that thing. Don’t leave a drop. And let’s hope you weren’t lying about that two minutes.” Hart smiled ruefully. “I’m moving as fast as I can.”
Stu shook his head and Hart could see the fear on his face.
“Go,” Hart said. He set his watch for two minutes as Stu sucked all the remaining air out of the tank and secured that few pounds of pressure in his lungs, the only thing standing between him and the rest of his life.
Hart’s fingers shook as he inserted the new umbilical into the schrader fitting. They started to spin and Stu locked his legs so tightly around Hart’s mid-section that Hart winced and dropped the wrench. Stu’s eyes flew open in horror. Holding tightly to the umbilical, Hart reached back and grabbed another wrench from his harness, but the umbilical, not yet fitted, popped out. The movement jarred them and they dangled like fish at the end of a taut line, the weight of their belts pulling them down. A minute, five seconds. Hart glanced at Stu. His eyes were closed and his lips were moving, but Hart couldn’t hear what he was saying through his helmet.
“Slack off the extra line,” Hart barked to Smith. “Just a little. Don’t pull in until I tell you.” In moments, the line went slack and Hart pulled it down and fitted it snugly into the empty space. He fumbled with tightening the connection until, in frustration, he pulled his gloves off and cast them aside. They floated away intertwined, hands without a body, and then down to the bottom of the sea. Twenty-five seconds.
Hands free, Hart worked fast now, tightening the schrader fitting on the umbilical. He could see Stu’s face straining with the lack of oxygen, crimson even by the light of Hart’s single bulb. He checked the connection once more and satisfied, threw open the free flow valve.
“She’s in. Tell ‘em to hit Stu’s gas.” In seconds, there was a squeal and a hiss as the life giving mixture of helium and nitrogen and the few remnants of water flooded Stu’s umbilical. Hart watched Stu’s face; he could almost feel the breeze as Stu opened his eyes in disbelief. Clearly he had made his peace with whatever divinity he worshiped and was shocked to realize it wasn’t his time after all. Recognition lit his face like a hundred-watt bulb and he winked at Hart.
Hart radioed Smith. “Ask Chewey Stuey if he’s got any dinner plans, would ya’?” Smith relayed the message to Ted who radioed Stu in a voice that Hart thought must sound like a choir of angels about now. Stu laughed and spoke into his mouthpiece. In a moment, Hart’s radio crackled to life.
“He said whatever Hart wants. As long as there’s a bottle of Dom to wash it down,” Smith said. “Hey, Boss,” Smith said. “I think Stu just asked you out on a date.”
Hart guffawed and gave Stu the underwater, version of a high-five. “Tell him I accept.”
Thirty minutes later and still a little shaky from his ordeal, Stu climbed the rope ladder and hopped onto the deck of the Poseidon. Hart did a lazy backstroke awaiting his turn while crew members tended to Stu, clapping him on the back, removing his gear and ascertaining his general condition en route to the decompression chamber.
Anxious to redeem himself, Jason yanked Hart in before his leg had a chance to clear the railing, and Hart went sprawling, helmet first, a thunderous entrance onto the deck. The landing would have blind-sided a lesser man, but after a few moments Hart sat up, hurting, but lucid.
“Geez, oh my God, I’m so sorry,” Jason apologized.
Mahajan put Hart’s laughter down to the fact that the oxygen levels in his body had not reached equilibrium. Hart and Stu had just spent the last thirty minutes lounging on the T-Bar, decompressing at forty feet, and both of them still looked a little green. Hart sat up, wobbling.
“How about some help here,” Mahajan said. The tenders assisted Hart, removing his helmet, belt and harness.
“That’s quite a noggin you got,” Mahajan said, inspecting the damage. He looked at Jason who stood nearby and waved him over.
“Get this guy some ice. And for the next twenty-four hours, he says jump, you say how high. He asks for anything, you’re on it. You understand. Anything.” Jason nodded and left.
Mahajan held out a hand pulled Hart to his feet. “Nice work.” He flashed Hart a smile before continuing. “Did you have a backup plan?” Hart smiled back, nodding. “D’ya mind telling me what it was? Cause you know, air expands. He probably had enough to exhale all the way to the T-Bar.”
Hart held his hand up, silencing Mahajan. “We wouldn’t have made it.”
Mahajan nodded, accepting Hart’s assessment of the situation and checked his watched. “Jesus, we gotta get you in. You only have five minutes and four are gone.” Mahajan pushed Hart toward the door of the decompression chamber.
Jason came running over with a cell phone, holding it out to Hart, but he tripped over Hart’s discarded equipment and went hurtling through space. Acceleration halted when he contacted Hart’s inert mass and together they clattered to the ground, Jason still holding out the cell phone. Hart pushed Jason off and sat up, rubbing his head for the second time before accepting the phone.
“This is Hart.”
And that was the state Hart was in when Bicky Coleman summoned him with all due haste back to Akanabi’s corporate headquarters.
to be continued. . .
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