CHAPTER THREE: Betty and Veronica
Doctor Lydia Wu was a tiny woman in her mid-fifties. Her jet black hair was shot through with gray, but her eyes were lively as she addressed the group of four graduate students standing on Surveyor’s foredeck. All of them were sweating profusely under the tropical summer sun.
“Welcome everyone, to the Tonga trench. Over the next three days, we will be collecting saltwater samples from different depths using these two manually controlled ROV submersibles.”
She gestured towards two machines that resembled overly-engineered pool cleaners. One was a shiny daffodil yellow, the other a gleaming ebony. Both were mounted with a framework of powerful LED bulbs and equipped with a row of glass vials for collecting samples.
“By now you’ve all completed a virtual demonstration on how we control these remotely operated vehicles, but you’ll soon find that the real thing is much different. For example, Betty–” she laid an affectionate hand on the fiberglass hull of the yellow submersible, “Betty’s left arm sticks a little when retracting, and you’ll have to be careful negotiating any tight spaces, or it could become bent out of shape.”
Doctor Wu turned and ran her other hand along the black frame of the second machine, “Now Veronica, she’s a spitfire. She responds to the slightest change in the controls, and if you’re too heavy-handed she’ll rocket straight into the bedrock.
“Both of my girls can take a few bumps and keep going, but have a care. It would be a shame if anything happened to either of these machines because they cost me five years of begging for grant money. Most of the modifications, I’ve done myself. Basically–I like both of them far more than I like any of you,”
Her words were stern but the professor grinned as she continued outlining the technical aspects of the ROVs.
Both Betty and Veronica had been specially designed to navigate the crushing pressure and pitch dark of the deep ocean. Their fiberglass hulls were nine inches thick, and metal rods around the bottom formed a kind of roll cage around the inner workings of the battery-powered motor.
Both submersibles had arms that could be extended and used to remotely manipulate objects. Three cameras, enclosed in titanium pressure casings, were spaced at various intervals along the side of the machines, facing downward, outward, and back in toward the submersible itself.
They were operated by a combination of computer navigation and manual controls that resembled two old Nintendo joysticks. A portable electronics bay had been assembled on Surveyor’s deck, complete with three HD display screens, a sonar system, and an infrared sensor. Every available bit of data would be recorded and sent to the backup drive in the main science laboratory. Whatever the ROVs saw, the control team would view instantly.
With a sweep of her arm, Doctor Wu stepped aside so that her class could have a full view of the machinery. “Who wants to take one of my lovely girls for a spin? Mr. MacGregor?”
Malcolm blushed scarlet red as all eyes suddenly turned towards him.
Doctor Wu either didn’t notice his discomfort or didn’t care. She waved him forward. “As the sole gentleman among us, would you care to ask Betty for a dance?”
The three female students in his research group tittered as Malcolm hesitantly left the safety of the group and joined his professor next to the yellow submersible. It was about the size of a Labrador, and something about the positioning of the lights suggested curious, friendly eyes. For a robot, Betty was really quite cute.
Now he just had to make sure she stayed that way.
A thick cable extended from the back of the submersible, which was currently attached to a metal winch. Doctor Wu moved to a large control panel, which was lit up with green and red buttons. Malcolm fumbled with the joysticks, trying to get a feel for the buttons that controlled the ROVs arm movements.
The metal davit which held Betty began to swing in a slow arc. The little robot was lifted into the air, swaying gently as the mechanical arm swung across Surveyor’s deck until Betty was poised expectantly over the side of the ship.
With a creak of metal, the winch was released and she dropped into the aquamarine waters of the Pacific. The monitors flickered to life as Betty’s motion-activated cameras turned on.
“We’re at your leisure, Mr. MacGregor,” the professor said dryly.
Malcolm stared at the controllers in his hands, struggling to remember the hours he had spent with the simulator back at university lab in San Diego.
Forward. He cautiously pushed the joystick forward a millimeter.
Nothing happened. The eyes of the rest of the class burned into his back, and Malcolm felt his cheeks flood again with heat. Competition among graduate students was fierce, and while Malcolm was on friendly terms with his fellow research assistants, he knew they would secretly love to watch him fail.
He applied more pressure on the controls, and there was a whirring sound from beneath the deck as Betty’s battery-operated generator came to life. The group peered over the sides of the ship as the little yellow robot came to life.
Malcolm watched on the monitors as the submersible pushed quietly through the crystalline waters. He waited until the ROV was a safe distance from the belly of Surveyor, then began exploring the underwater world that teemed beneath their feet.
It was a riot of color and movement. Schools of fish were swarmed under deep belly of the research vessel, drawn by the promise of cool shade and shelter.
Malcolm smiled and felt himself relax when he turned Betty’s in the water just in time to catch an enormous swordfish, at least ten feet long, shoot past and out of sight.
As Betty ventured further away from Surveyor, the metal davit extended over the deck continued to feed out a thick black cord. This cord ran from a port on Betty’s back, onto the deck and down into a large storeroom in the main hold of the ship.
This cord was nearly two miles long. Veronica’s was even longer, at three miles. These cords could be attached to create one single length that would extend nearly five miles down into the Tonga Trench.
This was why they had come. The goal was to land a submersible on the bottom of the abyss.
Malcolm shifted forward, and Betty began descending. The darting schools of fish were left behind as the waters began to grow darker. Colder. He flipped a switch on the central control panel near the monitors, and the ROVs powerful LED flashlights clicked on, their bright beams shining in all directions but focused on the area directly ahead and beneath the submersible.
Everyone gathered behind him, watching the monitors as Betty’s lights cut a path through the increasingly dark waters. Malcolm ignored them, completely absorbed in the silent, eerie world displayed in the view of Betty’s cameras. A pinging came from the navigation system, indicating that they’d reached their target. A wide grin spread across his face.
This was it.
Far below Betty’s gleaming yellow body, like a fatal wound carved into the surface of the Earth, was the trench.
“That’s far enough for today, Mr. MacGregor,” Doctor Wu said from over his shoulder. Malcolm had no idea when she had appeared at his side. Reluctantly, he passed the controls over to one of his classmates and moved to the back of the group.
“Well done, Malcolm. You were a natural,” the professor said approvingly before turning back to the monitors. She began outlining their various duties over the next three days.
Later that evening, Malcolm climbed exhaustedly into his tiny cabin. He yanked off his sweat-soaked t-shirt and threw it in the corner. He followed this with his pants and shoes then collapsed onto the narrow bed, groaning with frustration that his window didn’t open.
He had just spent the last eight hours in the confines of the main scientific laboratory on the main deck of Surveyor. His task was to run various saltwater samples that were collected by Betty and Veronica as he and the other graduate assistants took turns learning how to operate the ROVs in preparation for tomorrow’s long descent into the trench.
The process was long and tedious, but he normally loved the quiet repetition of lab work. Malcolm tended to stammer through any conversation not strictly on the topic of marine biology, he reveled in the relative silence of sample analysis.
The problem was that the science lab, like everywhere else on the ship, was unbearably stuffy. The rooms were temperature controlled, and since the samples they were currently studying had been taken from warm, tropical waters, the graduate students sweltered in rooms that were kept at a constant 82*F.
Thousands of miles out on the open ocean, Surveyor had different priorities than air-conditioning. She was only two hundred feet long from port to stern, and ran with a crew of ten, plus Doctor Wu and her research assistants.
Any available space that wasn’t strictly necessary to keep the ship afloat was given over to science labs. Surveyor had four temperature-controlled wetlabs for keeping live specimens. There were also three dry labs that were used to analyze the saltwater samples taken each day. There was a tiny room with a salinometer, which was used to track changes in the salt levels of the various ocean depths. There was a separate lab which could be used to study those deep-sea organisms that would die away from the crushing pressure of the abyssal region.
The ship was teeming with research equipment that Malcolm had been itching for to use in a practical environment for more than four years. Being chosen for this internship had been a huge achievement, and competition had been fierce. Sometimes Malcolm could still hardly believe he had been chosen, especially since at twenty-two, he was the youngest member of the team by three years.
That said, Surveyor had been built with a mind towards its fishy inhabitants, not its human ones.. He rolled over on the thin mattress, staring at the rivets and steel beams that crisscrossed the ceiling.
The gentle rocking of the ship, combined with the intense heat, was beginning to give him a splitting headache. Malcolm pressed a thumb and forefinger to the bridge of his nose, brow furrowed.
This trip was the culmination of seven year’s worth of work and sweat and determination and dreams.
And here he was, fighting down a wave of seasickness.
“Get a grip,” he said to himself sternly.
But there was nothing to be done. The tiny walls of the cabin were closing in.
He thought about taking a shower, but the communal bathroom was even more claustrophobic than his bunk, and was shared between all five of the graduate assistants. Just yesterday he had been washing in one of the three stalls when Molly Parker walked in nonchalantly and took the stall next to him. The walls of each stall were almost floor-to-ceiling, and made of thick, white plastic, but that had not stopped Malcolm from nearly having a panic attack at her proximity.
He was not very comfortable around women. Even women who had absolutely no interest in him whatsoever outside of a professional capacity.
It had been this way for years.
Sighing, Malcolm decided instead to go head back up to Surveyor’s top deck. Doctor Wu had given her research team the evening off, and there were plans for everyone to meet in the ship’s rec room to watch Jaws.
Because what else would you want to watch when thousands of feet of water sat between you and solid ground?
Coming up next, Syra meets with the High Priestess. Click here for Chapter Four!