01 Feb I work on an oil-rig in the North Sea. …They’re keeping something hidden beneath the waves.
The great chain grinds, its monstrous metallic howl reverberates through the platform that I stand upon with shaking legs. The chain is moving, there’s no doubt about it. Something is pulling it slowly down below the surface. I can see a section unravelling, I watch as it feeds reluctantly through a series of monstrous gears from an adjacent, slightly smaller tower.
The Captain is still shouting into my face, the rain and the beams of passing searchlights wash off the shine of his gold-black visor. His words eventually start to break through the wail of the siren and the rush of the waves and into my petrified daze:
“Reg! Reg! It is Reg, isn’t it?”
“I- yes, yeah. That’s right”.
The Captain’s eyes flash and he nods, drawing back a little. “Look to the right of the tower Reg. Just behind. You see that grey cylinder?”
I do. Waves of the siren’s orange and blue light roll across it again and again. “Yes, I see it. The Reservoir right? For the hydraulics?”
The Captain laughs out loud, a disturbing and ludicrous sound amidst the tumultuous, relentless chaos. “Smashing!” he says, clasping a rough and heavy hand on my shoulder, “and you feel your feet on the ground? You have your bearings?”
“I, yes, yes uh, Captain”.
“BRILLIANT! That’s your station old chap! Off you go, on the double!” He tips his cap and strides off across the platform back to his ship. I watch him go for a second, then I feel the blood return to my legs.
“LET’S GO REG! THEY’RE COUNTING ON YOU!” I hear from behind.
Yes, right. This is my assignment. Here we go. Here we go!
My feet splash across the surface of the platform as I head for the nearest metal mesh stairs, fastening the hardhat I’d been rudely gifted onto my head. The entire ground is like a rippling mirror, illuminated in flashes of white, of blue and of orange. As soldiers sprint past me in formation, their shimmering reflections below run with them, distorted by the sheets of rain.
My hand slips right off the watery rail as I ascend, I stumble past my fellow workers; I’ve already lost sight of the six I arrived with, they could be anywhere by now. I cross the bridge over to the Reservoir, I can see the pipes and tubes to the hydraulic cylinders, not quite the same as the ones back on my own rig, but similar enough. A sudden crunch from behind has me swear in fear and swivel at once, and through the iron cage of the tower, the massive chain suddenly jolts down, an entire, van-sized link disappearing out of sight into the shadows below.
“Good Christ… what… what the hell is this place?” I mutter breathlessly, cold rain streaking down my face.
I fight my way through the storm to the cylinders- there’s a team of about nine or ten, difficult to tell, all swarming around the pumps and control valves. A guy in goggles looks over to me.
“HYDRAULICS?” he calls through the rain. A great boom of thunder shivers through the sky to accompany the scream of the siren.
“Uh, fuck… yes? I think that’s me!” I call back.
The goggled man nods and points to me a section of cylinder. “OPEN THAT FUCKER UP, SEE IF IT’S WORKING. QUICK AS YOU CAN MATE”.
I push through the bustle of my new comrades, adrenaline pumping, and I turn to hastily look through a box of tools for the equipment I’ll need to remove the covering.
A searchlight beam from afar scans across my immediate surroundings, and I catch a flash of blue coat, thrown about in the wind as its owner passes me by, crossing from an opposite bridge. It’s the guy the Captain was talking to earlier down on the loading platform. I turn to look up at him, drill in hand.
“-It’s embarrassing, is what it is!” The man in the blue coat says to the officer at his right as he strides past. He stands tall and walks with grim purpose. “FOURTH siren tonight? Is this a piss-take? This is the kind of shoddy control I’d expect over on the Danish rig, not on bloody UK-A!”
“Commander!” the goggled man shouts, rain flying from his lips as he stands up straight, and the Commander tips his hat to him in return.
“Status?” the Commander bellows, back rigid and hands quickly clasped behind his back as the wind drags his coat about his shoulders. I don’t have a good look at his face, but I can see a thick white beard whipped round his jaw.
“No major issue here, Commander”, Goggles replies, “Hydraulics understood to be clear”.
“Fuck’s SAKE”, the Commander mutters, casting an eye shrouded in shadow from his visor over my new colleagues. “Then what the hell is the problem here? Too much slack on the Chain?” He turns to the officer to his right. “Find out what UK-B and the Norwegians are up to. The amount of times I’ve had to tell NO-Rig to sharpen their shit this month… Bollocks to it, let’s BRING THIS FUCKER UNDER CONTROL. I DO NOT WANT TO DEAL WITH A FIFTH SIREN TONIGHT”.
The Commander and his entourage clatter their way across the bridge. I watch him raise an arm and gesture angrily to the groaning chain, looking like little toy soldiers beside it as they pass it by.
We work on through the night. The rain, eventually, begins to fall back into a more bearable drizzle. The sea calms, and starts to settle, the waves against the rig’s legs grow decreasingly violent, and the siren, mercifully, cuts out. The Chain too, is steadily, brutally, hauled back up through the tower and mechanically re-ravelled.
Like a fool, I had expected my shift to end there. For me to be allowed some desperately needed rest. But I was mistaken. My shift continued on through the night.
It turned out there had been a minor fault with one of the hydraulic systems after all, but since the siren had ceased and we couldn’t work out if this particular malfunction had been responsible or not, we agreed collectively not to mention it.
It was not until the silvery light through the clouds above suggested that the sun had risen that I was dismissed. Like a zombie I marched to my assigned dorm and collapsed onto a narrow bed against the wall, and fell at once into a welcome and total sleep.
I was the first one to awaken. My bunkmates were all still snoring away.
I rub my eyes and bring my legs over the side of the bed, gently cracking the joints in my arms and my back. A clock on the wall tells me that it’s 12:20pm. Five hours of sleep. Great.
I run a hand down my face, but I actually don’t feel too bad. A piece of paper taped to the wall below the clock tells me that ‘Hydraulics Team B’ are expected to return to work at 1:30pm. I’m assuming that one’s mine, based on the accompanying time that we were dismissed. Someone has scrawled across the paper in pencil in the margin: it’s today’s date along with ‘Commander’s Orientation, 13:15’.
I quietly open the door and after a quick splash of water to the face, a change of clothes, and an, admittedly rather gross brush with a ‘borrowed’ toothbrush I decide to use my spare hour to look around the rig.
The weather has calmed, and whilst the sun is not exactly ‘shining’, it’s pleasant enough, for now. The rig is just as busy as it was last night, but the air of panic has dissipated, thankfully. During my walk I encounter one of the six from my previous rig, and we shoot the shit for a few minutes. I learn the location of the lockers where our belongings have been deposited, and immediately regret my decision to use the toothbrush of the unknown soldier.
It’s remarkably easy to tell which workers on the rig are new arrivals and which have been here for longer. You can see it in the lines of their faces, in their eyes and expressions, the way they carry themselves. The soldiers however, are unreadable. I ponder their purpose as I make my way through the inner corridors of the rig’s hub. If you walk like you have a clear direction in mind, you typically won’t be bothered, I’ve found.
I’m intrigued by what appears to be a small library nestled within the walls. A cluster of shabby bookshelves hold a range of battered books, there’s some maps here too, of the North Sea, and of the rig itself, taped to the wall.
It’s as I’m studying one of these maps when something catches my eye. A word, scratched deliberately into the metal of the wall alongside. It’s not obvious, but now that I’ve seen it I can read it as clear as day.
‘Figgs’, it says.
A brief but sharp surge of adrenaline passes through me. Could this have been carved by Figgs himself? By my friend? The very friend who was selected as one of the seven for this rig the last time? It must have been, surely. Knowing that he was here sets me grinning and I shake my head in disbelief. Why would he carve his name into the wall?
I look around the room. I undo the tape on the adjacent poster and peel it back, but there is nothing but blank wall behind. After a moment of consideration, I grab ahold of the little bookshelf directly below the scrawling, and grunt with effort as I push it to the side. And sure enough, hidden behind against the wall, are a series of further carvings. I’m not sure why, but I feel compelled to shut the door to the library room, so I do so before squatting down to study what has been written.
There’s a number carved here. 41-1-34… A date perhaps? Not like any date I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s a military system I’m not familiar with.
There’s also a drawing, a crude one. It looks like a little square, about to be devoured from beneath by a larger, bizarrely pac-man esque shape. Or, half of him, at least. A semi-circle, with a split for an open jaw. It’s literally just a bunch of lines carved into the metal, but it unsettles me in a way I can’t explain. Next to this drawing is the phrase: ‘DON’T TRUST PODDER’ in capital letters.
‘Podder’… Who the hell is Podder?
The sounds of footsteps in the corridor beyond bid me grab the bookshelf and quickly drag it back into place; workers push through the door and I nod to them upon my exit before they have a chance to ask me what I was doing.
41-1-34… Don’t trust Podder… A drawing of a semi-circle and a square…
They all mean something, I’m sure of it. Figgs left them behind, I know he did.
With only ten or so minutes left until the scheduled briefing by the Commander, I decide to dwell on my findings on the rig’s largest bridge, and an excellent vantage point for views of the surrounding sea. I can see a few battleships dotted around in the distance from here. One of them could well be the Destroyer belonging to Captain Irons. I can also see another two rigs like this one spread out in the distance, and if I squint, I can just about make out the rough form of a third, far against the grim horizon.
There’s a guy stood nearby eating a sandwich. First person I’ve seen since arrival not actively engaged in a task of some kind. He seems in decent spirits, but his eyes are glazed and tired. He nods at me and I nod back, then he gestures to the faraway rig with his sandwich.
“That’s the Norwegian rig”, he mumbles. “’NO-Rig’ they call it”.
“Ah”. I reply. I’m not sure what else to say. “My name’s Reg, nice to meet you mate”.
“Aye”, he replies, “you too pal. Dan”.
“Anything you can tell me about the chain, Dan?”
“…What chain?” he asks, and I furrow my brow in confusion. I’m about to gesture to the colossal metal links held in the tower, when he chuckles at me. “I’m just screwing with you mate. I know what you mean. But I don’t have any answers for you, I’m afraid. No bloody clue. They’re keeping something locked down, that’s all I know. It moves with the storms”. He looks out to sea. “And it’s always stormy here”.
“You been here long?”
“Ten days. I’ll be done in another four. Second time they’ve assigned me to the rig”.
To my surprise I feel a flood of relief. Ah, so people DO come back from the rig, then.
And of course they do. The idea that they wouldn’t… I silently brand myself a fool. Of course people move on from here… Why wouldn’t they?
“Second time?” I ask, “how long was your first shift?”
“Five days. They keep trebling your pay with every subsequent return, apparently”. He takes another bite, chews thoughtfully. “And a man needs it”.
“So what’s up with the military presence?”
He shrugs. “Who knows. Keep the Russians away, perhaps? Whatever they’re up to here it’s important shit, clearly. I mean look at all this”. A trio of helicopters flies overhead as he spreads out his arms. I watch them pass.
“Hmm, yeah, maybe”. I shift on the spot, and think about what I saw scrawled on the wall. Would it be unwise to bring it up to this guy? To Dan?
“You know of anyone called ‘Podder’, Dan?”
He gives me a strange look, and pauses. “No”, he replies. “Can’t say that I do. Though I only work on the uppermost deck, so my pool of acquaintances is relatively small. The Military Police here are nicknamed the ‘Plodders’, if that’s of any meaning…”
“No, no but thanks anyway”.
He eyes me again, his expression changing, and he stands up straight. “You know, you ask a lot of questions, Reg… To be honest I’m wondering what you’re even doing here. They don’t normally send blokes like you. Not in my experience”.
I laugh awkwardly, but Dan does not return the laughter. He just holds my gaze for a tense moment, then shrugs, and looks back out to sea. I breathe. “I guess your skills are just in-demand right now”, he muses.
Realising the time, I thank the guy for his conversation and head down to the briefing by the Commander. I’m cutting it fine, but thankfully I’m not the last to arrive. He doesn’t say much, really. Just gruffly goes over some basic logistics, highlights important duties for the day and officially ‘welcomes’ us to the rig.
It’s not a particularly cheery welcome.
Nor is it particularly interesting. He mentions that we will all be subject to a lengthy ‘debrief’ in Norway upon the end of our service, and then there’s something else he says… something that stands out… something I dwell on well into the day…
“Whatever you may hear”, he says, scanning the room. One eye bright and shining like polished brass, the other blinded, a scarred white-grey, “whatever you may see… It is suggested that you push that shit aside and save it for the debrief. I would remind you that the British Government takes dissension from the Official Secrets Act very seriously, very fucking seriously indeed…” His eyes meet mine. “As do I. And I’m worse than those fuckers in London, I can assure you”.
The tension holds the air still and thick and heavy. Then it breaks away like ice with a sudden clap. The Commander nods and gestures to the door, and it’s clear that the meeting is over.
My day is uneventful. I learn little else and make no mental progress on the mysterious scrawlings, presumably left by Figgs himself. My shifts are broken up into six hours on, six hours off. Rough. And it’s night-time when it gets the rougher. The rains return. The swirl and seethe of the storm. As if it’s angry about the rig’s very presence in its waters. I shiver as I check the lights on the enormous control valve before me.
The tension now is palpable. Far beyond anything I experienced in the Commander’s briefing, this is something else. All teeth are set, every pair of eyes itching to glance up at the silent siren, soldiers and workers alike all on edge, waiting, waiting, praying that the siren doesn’t go off. The impending potential shattering of the ‘peace’ is, perhaps, worse than the shattering itself. And eventually of course, it does. The siren cuts through me like a knife, and the world of metal around is cast in glows of orange and blue, orange and blue, all along the bridges… the rails, the metalwork and the gears, the multitude of platforms and the giant, towering derrick skeleton, and the Chain groaning inside.
The chaos returns.
It’s stressful beyond words. But the problem, wherever it came from, is, after fifteen minutes or so, fixed. And the siren stops. We breathe a collective sigh of relief as the brutal orchestra of our tempestuous domain cuts us some slack.
…For a while. Because after another tense hour, it sounds again.
And then after that, it sounds again.
I feel sick.
This is relentless! Is this why they were so desperate to get us here? Because the previous crew were literally fit to collapse?
But this time, the siren does not stop. It just keeps on wailing, screaming its distress out into the night.
Fuck. It’s so fucking loud.
The frustration we feel grows into anger. Anger which quickly breaks down into shivering nerves, and then melts further into cold fear. Why won’t it stop? Where is the Commander? The guy in charge of our section, ‘Goggles’ as I’ve nicknamed him, removes his helmet and runs a hand through his hair. “Again!” he shouts, “check through it all AGAIN! Have we missed ANYTHING?”
The chain jolts. To my horror it swings slowly to the side and crashes into the side of the metal tower that contains it, the vibrations of the shock thundering through the entire rig.
“OH HELL!” Goggles bellows in dismay, “WHERE’S THE FUCKING COMMANDER?”
And then there is another noise. A boom that ripples through the air from the distance. I rise on shaking legs and lean over the rails, looking through the rain out to sea. A warship of some kind, closer than before but still a ways away, is firing upon the churning waves. Its turrets light up in brilliant white, and then a half second later they are followed by the booms and the rattle of fire.
There’s something in the sea. More ships are coming round through the haze, I can see them, I can see their lights, and the water between them shifts and swells in ways that don’t make sense. The dark waves rise, colossal… I wipe the rain from my eyes. I can’t quite make it out…
…And I realise. Everyone is distracted. Distracted by the lightshow out at sea. The workers have shifted away from their stations, I can see all around… If I’m going to look for answers, the time is NOW.
So I seize the moment. And with a quick look behind, I sprint away through the shadows of the rails. Keeping my head low I make brisk pace down the shuddering stairs; I cross the platform, trying to look like someone who has a clear goal in mind, and am about to push through in the central hub of the rig when four helicopters fly out overhead. My mouth drops. To fly in THIS? They must be insane!
But they’re carrying something… between the four of them, they’re carrying a length of the colossal chain, the same type as held in the tower, and weighed down at either end by what I’m presuming must be massive, gargantuan anchors. I know I shouldn’t be wasting my moment, but I can’t help but watch as they fly out to sea, illuminated fleetingly in the glare of the warship fire, and then they hover in place, as much as they can given the weather, and the chain is released. It drops down through the dark towards the swirling sea, and smacks into the surface with a crash, the spray slow and massive as the iron sinks.
Blood pumping, I turn and push on into the hub.
The map I saw in the library I recreate as best I can in my mind, and I orient myself. I head to the staff quarters; the officers’. I march with purpose past the groups of hurried soldiers, careful not to make eye contact, and at the end of the corridor I find what I am looking for- the map in the library had it marked only as a door, with no room beyond- but that was impossible. And sure enough, there’s a room here, shrouded in darkness. Filing cabinets line the walls. There’s a desk attached too. Empty except for a bottle of Vitamin D tablets.
But this is good. Filing cabinets. Personnel files in here, perhaps? Maybe I can find information on ‘Podder’. Or about the Chain.
I know I’m an idiot. Most would just take the money, keep themselves to themselves and go home. That’s presumably why they get selected. But I’m not one of them. I’m just not.
I run a hand over the cabinets. All locked, of course. Curious steel padlocks are attached to each and every door, all in the pattern of 00-0-00.
…A lightbulb goes on in my head. I recognise that pattern! It’s the same as the number Figgs wrote on the wall!
“Alright, fuck it”, I mutter to myself, cracking my knuckles before setting to work. Starting with padlock number one and working my way down, then across. “Don’t fail me now Figgs”.
I work fast, and I can’t be more than a few minutes, but the time feels like it drags on. I’m expecting to be rumbled at any second, for some officer to barge in and arrest me… but they do not.
And on Cabinet number seven, the padlock snaps open.
“AH!” I grunt with desperate glee, dragging the door open and rifling through the folders and files within.
I grab a handful of them and drop them onto the desk, flipping them open and trying to absorb as much as I can. I don’t really want to stick around. Frustratingly, the files aren’t arranged alphabetically; there doesn’t even seem to be any coherent order at all.
There are pages and pages of reports. Some with notes scrawled across in pen, or black ‘REDACTED’ bars stamped over them.
‘ALL DRILLING OPERATIONS AT SITE ARSKINE3 TO CEASE IMMEDIATELY. Report to Cdre R.Cleese. Dec 1986’
I flip through another. I’m careful not to let the rainwater drip from my face onto the paper.
‘URGENT: Redirection of UK NUCLEAR PROGRAMME: ‘TRIDENT’ budget to ARSKINE3 discovery. 17-18% recommended. PENDING. Jan 1987’.
I don’t have time to take in all the text, I just absorb what I can;
‘Personnel to be assigned to new rigs UK-A + UK-B for no longer than periods of two weeks maximum. Standardisation with Norwegian and Danish rigs [NO + DA] recommended’.
‘Greater personnel numbers suggested during winter months’.
‘Entity’s true nature to remain at highest level of classification’.
I expel a breath of air from my lungs in a cold and unwelcome burst.
I lift the file up towards the room’s sole source of light; it flickers as the wind howls outside and the siren blares. A scrap of torn brown paper falls from amidst the file and lands on the desk. My heart pounds as I pick it up and read it through.
It’s a segment of a poem. Handwritten in fine ink.
‘Alfred Lord Tennyson; 1830’ it says at the top.
‘Below the thunders of the upper deep/ Far far beneath in the abysmal sea/ His ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep…’ the paper is torn, and the poem ends there.
It is almost like I am watching myself from above as I stuff the papers back into the file with pink-tipped and trembling fingers. As I slam them back into cabinet and re-mix the combination on the lock and stride pale-faced and stomach-lurching back through the corridors. I realise that I have made a terrible mistake. I should never have agreed to make the voyage here. I should never have signed the Secrets Act and I should never have allowed myself to get caught up in this madness.
‘The Entity’s true nature…. THE ENTITY…’
‘Don’t panic’, is all I can tell myself as I return into the storm. As the rain batters renewed against my head and my back, as the lightning flashes… and as a terrible and alien roar sounds out over the sea.
It stops me in my tracks. It is by far the worst sound I have heard since my arrival, and I’ve been privy to a great many disturbing sounds. It echoes out over the writhing waters and up into the swirls of the sky… and a great, jarring force from below suddenly throws me to the ground. I slip across the surface of the platform, scrambling up onto my elbows, barely able to believe my eyes as the edge of a huge, iron wheel is forced up against the far side of the rig from beneath. I watch it as it smashes into a crane, one which promptly disconnects from the rig with the sound of tearing metal and crashes down, down into the churning sea. The Chain grinds against the tower. All around me now is pure panic.
And with a cataclysmic crash, I am powerless to do anything but watch, as the great Chain wins the struggle, and smashes through the side of the skeleton tower in a shower of broken metal. It tears through the edge of the rig, it swings round towards me, and it brings with it the enormous wheel from below, dragged round the edge of the cracked, far platform.
And my screams become one with those of the siren.