The Drifter

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Table of Contents

The Drifter

By J.R. Burgmann




Down into the dark. Farther than ever before. Beyond the light of stars, where blue gives way to black.

Trencher-9 drifts with the undercurrent winds, descending into that perpetual darkness, where even the faintest tendrils of sunlight cannot penetrate, disappearing kilometres ago, away into twilight. Midnight water. The capacitive red light of the cabin flickers and signals: life. Oceanic residents of the abyss, neon and translucent and ductile. Far from alien, there is nothing so earthly in this world. Their soft kind have wimpled and foraged along the deepest surfaces of the planet since before living beings managed to walk and breathe air.

The monitors feed back aquatic clicks and creaks and gushes, benthic chatter. And Evie, nuzzled there within the cockpit, leaning into those signals, seeking ways to shapeshift and leave the burning world of humans behind, is peaceful in that abyss. Floating. No need to comprehend it fully; just to be in its midst is a bottomless freedom far greater than years of free-diving have given her.

Fathoms down, she kicks in the reverse thrusters, stabilising and monitoring pressure systems and cabin integrity. On this, her twelfth voyage, she still trembles with terrified delight at the eerie marine world within reach, separated only by glass and metal and ingenuity. The immense pressures down here would compress her middle-aged body to death in moments. She fantasises about it, sometimes.

She diverts power to the front and rear rotary orbs and casts this, the deepest of ocean trenches, aglow. The sedimentary rocks here, coated in mats of bacteria, have never known such wavelengths. They seem to flinch, before shimmering with new knowledge.

Sorry. But Evie cannot resist. She has to see what is down here.

Her team had approval for only six dives this rotation, with a clear and specific mandate: maintenance and retrieval. Permission to observe and survey marine life on an incidental basis—one of Evie’s preconditions in taking on the job—was granted informally because of the intense demand for her specific skillset.

She clings to the idea that she’ll discover something new, or some leftover thing that has been hiding in the deep for decades, healing. A shark. A blue whale. She rubs her icicle hands together, warming them: don’t hold your breath.

Evie sweeps along the ocean floor. She makes out prawn-like amphipods and bottom-feeding sea cucumbers. Grenadier skimming the seabed just above spoonworms that slink along, churning up deeply bedded sand, billowing for the slowest seconds imaginable, the speed of deep water, before falling back down, stringy and cumulous.

Hours like minutes drift by.

And then, without warning, Trencher-9 stalls, coming to a complete and unremarkable halt, its lighting systems crashing as it drops those final metres to the seafloor in impossible darkness, falling into bed and eternal slumber.

Evie suspects this is what she’s been wishing for all along, taking the drifter for absurdly expensive, unlogged joy rides. She’s more amused than anything else. Her indiscretions will turn up in corporate accounts, no doubt. But by then she’ll have provided them with what they want. Or she’ll be down here for the rest of time. Irretrievably lost, though eventually found. All manner of creatures would adorn this coffined vessel, life coming to nest there in its various mechanical alcoves along with rich bacteria and colonies of algae. Whole eras would pass, empires rise and fall, continents shift and resettle, species evolve and vanish from here. How long might her bones endure, sepulchred in the near-freezing depths?

Her pulse finally rises. And human fear, so basic—so essential—kicks in. It courses from within and sharpens everything from without.

She fumbles around on the console before her, brailing along the complex grid of keys and switches, until she locates the largest and most pronounced toggle, restoring backup power. It works—powering oxygen, voice command, interior lighting, and vital cabin functions. She calls up the drifter’s manual to the console touchscreen, deciphering its table of contents and scrolling through hundreds of pages. Down, down, down. Forever it goes.

Who the fuck wrote this?!

Sweat pools in her jumpsuit. It drips off her. Salty rivulets trickle down to the bottom of the screen, falling to the steel floor of the drifter. It patters a tinny pulse, droplets landing at half the rate of her heartbeat but rising, cascading. Soon they synchronise.

Everything is rising, except Trencher-9.

She manages to locate the mechanical reboot section, steadies herself and methodically follows the steps.

She waits, wild-eyed and heaving, as the metal beast whirs and runs through various sequences.

Minutes pass forever.

They could be her last; they could be her first. First in a new life, yes. She kisses the necklace Raph made for her, runs its wooden charm across her teeth. She wonders what Jasmine is up to, wherever in the dangerous world she has escaped to. And Arne. Yes. When she gets back to the surface, she will find him. It has been too long. She wants to scream, but instead is overcome by crying and painful laughter.

In her agonising wait she becomes lost to silence. She builds enough strength to yell, viscerally and from the deepest depths of her diaphragm. The noise like the lion-roars she used to perform, prowling on all fours for Raph and Jazz when they were little, echoes metallically around the compartment.

Trencher-9 begins to quake, cowering in its death throes. Drones and clankings drive up and up, increasing in pitch and urgency but faltering over and over, clogging at the critical moment before winding down in failure.

Evie swivels around to face out the window, a sheet of obsidian rock, cold and devoid of light. She could divert some precious power to the orbs, light up the world again. But she waits, helpless.

She closes her eyes and, as always, Benji comes to her. What he would look like. Who he might be. She can hardly recall the chubby crevices of his cherubic body anymore. He rises and falls in her mind every day, never still enough to recognise.

But now, with only hours of oxygen remaining, at the bottom of the western Pacific, she feels closer to him than ever. She could drift off, reach out and swaddle her boy once more.

She closes her eyes.

wavy lines for section break

Evie wakes to a great clamour, a life-affirming turbulence throwing her from her seat. She falls hard on her arse but barely registers the pain. The drifter has clunked back to life and is coasting along its earlier course, like nothing ever happened. As if nothing had gone terrifyingly awry.

“You cunt,” Evie chants, manic and elated. “You beautiful cunt.”

She climbs up into her seat and takes control. While Trencher-9 equilibrates, Evie’s body runs awash with great clusters of chemical ensigns, hormones and neurotransmitters discharging, colliding—a little big bang. Primordial, a beginning. She could have drifted off; but here she is, now, alive.

Evie is rising. Up.




And, with eerie routine, she proceeds along the original trajectory toward the carbon-sequestration purlieu, where various emission-sinking experiments are carried out.

There’s a lot of money in saving the world. A whole economy, conglomerates of history’s great polluters, pivoting, pledging, and thriving. Innovations. Solutions. Shoppers, exalt—no need to revolt. The planet has been put out to tender! And look, here is the ocean. Blue as ever, just how your grandparents remember it. We came from there. It will take our plumes of excess, dispatched along pipes. It’s already doing the bulk of the work anyway, has done so throughout time, back to the Cambrian, eons ago.

Evie shudders. Of course this was the greatest vision they could manage: behemoth phalluses plunging into the ocean, ejaculating and thereby coming to save the world.

She swings around now in a sweeping manoeuvre, piloting through complex rock formations, jagged aquatic mountainsides, and crossing the threshold into the sequestration purlieu, a dense and acidic carbon lake saddling the ocean floor. Myriad carbon hydrates, chunks like large cuts of igloo ice, float and fall in the vastness. Great tunnels of downward pipe eject humanity’s favourite chemical compound and emission of choice.

She chugs safely beneath them and, rotating the orbs, casts the littered world below in glorious white light.

She descends.

She engages upward thrusters, hovering over a perfect rickle of six-month-old hydrates—not too densely packed, just enough to hold together and not tumble.

Evie inserts the extraction mechanism—an arcade-like but dexterous claw—and on first attempt grabs hold of a perfect block, glistening and ominous, a stable form teeming inside with a little monstrous everyday history. Boring and apocalyptic. She retracts the mechanism and buckets the sample into one of Trencher-9’s bespoke containers.

She has been tasked with collecting various samples exposed to deep-sea conditions for various amounts of time, to test their viability as carbon sinks. And she’s damn good at this game; her benevolent budget-cutting overlords nearly lost one of their best players today. When she gets back to the rig, she’ll have to log Trencher-9’s deadly malfunction with the bots in maintenance.

She’ll need to start ascending soon, but there’s enough oxygen for a dance.

Diverting extra power to the front orbs, she glides forward, lacing gracefully from pipe to pipe, their waste slipping by her side as she pitches and yaws.

At the edge of the purlieu she catches a shadow in the depths below, slipping across her lights some hundred metres away. She veers toward the shape, twisting and flailing in an alarming spasm.

Closing in, Evie rotates the front orbs and catches a set of panicked eyes, globular and ancient grey. A fish, large and with no human name. It recoils as Trencher-9 approaches.

“What’s wrong, buddy,” Evie sings, reaching out and placing a palm against the glass. “What’s your name?”

It continues to thrash. Why has it not fled? She leans in, peers even closer.

And then she sees it.

The fish is trapped. It writhes, madly torsioning to break its flesh free. It is coming apart. Its body, sheeny and vermicular, splits under the force of its own long and desperate struggle.

Evie screams. She jolts back in fright, reeling. Seething. Eventually, she manages to return to the window. In the stillness, she identifies the pliable but unbreakable substance, still tangled around the remaining front half of the fish: plastic. Unimaginably far from where it came. The ocean, retaining what humankind has tried to forget. That abandoned and everlasting thing, haunting them still.

Ubiquitous little bits of it seeping into the earth and every living thing. Larger, catchable portions of the stuff rolling in the wind across the surface of the world, through cities sinking and otherwise, expanding towns, and the diminishing ribbons of land between. Colourful islets of this strange matter forming ramshackle seasteads, extraordinary waterworld hamlets, junk-island nations, brave homes for the displaced and dispatched who insist on living.

Evie shifts in her seat, suddenly lonely. In deep-ocean murk clarity comes unbidden. Some sober alien, krakening away inside, whispering clearly. You nearly died. Look how this poor wonderful fish tore itself in two. Go home. Leave this dead place of vain experiments. Go home.

Evie focuses. She brings the drifter up in a steadily rising sequence, proceeding cautiously through the gauntlet of hope-laden penis pipes. Far greater in diameter than the composite shell around her, they always look as though they might shuck her out and shoot her up into them. If she were to venture too close.

Hours pass. As she reaches the surface water, rippling through sun-stroked shallows, Evie starts to say her goodbyes to Trencher-9. On approach to the rig she collects her photos and talismans, trinkets made by small hands long ago, adorning the console. She docks the drifter, logs the cut of hardened carbon, unlocks the top hatch and disembarks, stepping into a world of blistering heat. She unzips her jumpsuit, opens it up to dangle from her hips, dank with the sweat of death.

She looks around. No one here registers her safe return. They rush about the platform doing sundry tasks, sweating and swearing—cursing their world. Would she have sent out a distress call at the last? Probably. Then again, maybe not.

She says farewell to the ocean. Exhausted, she knows it will save nothing and that she cannot save it. She apologises for abandoning it—big blue, lovely and dying, with glistening crests of cream, all the way to the horizon in every direction. She breathes in a lungful of it, before rushing to her berth to contact someone far away.