Ruth Garber adjusted her headset for the hundredth time and leaned forward, peering out the nearest window of the chopper to the blue water below. It was a rough ride, and loud as all get-out, but she took such things in stride. It wasn’t her first rodeo, by any means. Her granddaughter, however, had never ridden in a helicopter before, and her anxiety was evident.
Stella was in the seat across from Ruth, and it seemed like she was struggling to hold it together. She kept wringing her hands, biting her lower lip. Her eyebrows were doing a strange little slow dance up and down her forehead, as her gaze shifted constantly from the window on one side to the window on the other.
When Ruth finally made eye contact with her granddaughter, she gave her an encouraging thumbs-up, but Stella only nodded and looked away again.
“Is it always this windy?” Stella asked, shouting into her headset microphone to be heard.
“No, not usually,” Ruth replied. “I think we’re in for a bit of a storm.”
The Sikorsky S-76C was a slick machine, with a bright yellow and black exterior and comfortable padded seats inside. Stella had taken the left side of the back bench, so Ruth had sat across from her in a backward-facing chair. Parker Jamison, an oil platform worker and an old friend of Ruth’s, was seated on the other side of the bench from Stella, with a small table between them. He was tall and well-muscled, with a neatly trimmed black beard and a broad jawline. He was also, at the moment, somehow sleeping soundly through the rough weather.
Just then, a fierce gust of wind rocked the helicopter to one side. Ruth’s stomach lurched, and she grabbed hold of the armrests, clamping down tightly. Her headset had shifted again, but she let it sit awkwardly as she steadied herself. Stella yelped at the sudden swaying of the chopper, and that, in turn, caused Parker to open one eye and look at her.
“Did something happen?” he asked. “We’re not plummeting into the sea, are we?” He didn’t sound especially concerned.
Instead of answering, Stella leaned forward, wrapping her arms over her head, as if bracing for impact. Her headset landed in her lap.
“Stella, honey, we’re okay,” Ruth said. “The helicopter can handle worse than this, and we’ve got a highly qualified company pilot behind the controls.”
But Ruth glanced at Parker as she said it—she didn’t actually know what the chopper could handle—and Parker responded with a one-shoulder shrug, as if to say, Don’t ask me!
Ruth turned in her seat, looking over her shoulder. She had a somewhat limited view of the cockpit through a window behind her seat. She could just make out the shape of the copilot via lights from the instruments, creating a faint nimbus along his shoulder, arm, and the side of his head. Beyond him, sheets of rain lashed against the windshield, obscuring the gray sky beyond.
There really wasn’t much to be said right now to comfort Stella. The weather was relentless and terrible, and they still had quite a way to go. Ruth decided her best bet was to get some kind of conversation going to give her granddaughter something else to focus on. The poor girl was still hunched over, arms wrapped around her head.
Parker was awake now and staring out the window beside him with his arms crossed.
“So, Parker, did you enjoy your shore leave?” Ruth asked, speaking loudly enough to be heard through the headset. “Three whole weeks. What could you possibly have done to fill all of that free time?”
He shrugged again—both shoulders this time—but gave her a big smile. He wasn’t a bad-looking man, really. He had a nice smile that made his eyes scrunch up in a pleasant way. Of course, Ruth had absolutely no designs on the man. She was three decades his senior, and she preferred her gentlemen silver-haired and dignified.
“Three weeks is way too short, to be honest,” Parker replied. “I could’ve used another month. When I’m on the oil platform, I miss being able to get in my truck and just drive places, you know?” He glanced at Stella. “What about you, kid? Can you drive yet?”
Stella frowned and sat up, grabbing her headset. “I’m nineteen,” she said, looking at Parker. “Of course I can drive. I got my license years ago.”
“Well, you never know,” Parker said. “Lots of kids ride bikes and scooters these days. It’s more eco-friendly.”
Stella studied him. “You work on an oil platform,” she said, but her expression had softened. “Do you really want kids to stop using gas-powered vehicles?”
“Oh, heck, no,” Parker replied with a laugh. “I’ve got bills to pay. Burn more fuel, I say!”
Stella was still holding her headset in her hands. Ruth gestured for her to put them back on her head.
“They’re kind of uncomfortable,” Stella said. “Do we have to wear them? I can pretty much read your lips when you talk.”
Ruth nodded. “Protects your hearing. Plus, they enable the pilot to talk to us.”
“Why? So he can say, ‘Brace for impact,’ if we’re going down?” Stella joked.
Ruth hesitated a second before replying, “If it comes to that…yes.”
Wide-eyed, Stella slipped the headset back over her head, settling them on her ears.
“It’s not going to come to that,” Ruth quickly added. “We’re fine. The pilot can handle a bit of rain.”
“I’ve flown this damned route a hundred times,” Parker added, with a dismissive swipe of his hand. “We get storms like this sometimes. This one’s a little worse than usual, but we’ll be fine, kid. Trust me, you’ll be safely stranded on the oil platform and bored out of your mind in no time.”
Stella sighed loudly and nodded. “Okay, I’m fine. It’s fine. No problem.” She nodded again, as if reassuring herself.
“It’s not really that boring,” Parker added, leaning toward her as if he were sharing a secret. “We’ve got a ping-pong table, board games, a DVD player that’s about twenty years old.”
“She’ll be helping me most of the time,” Ruth said. “She won’t be bored. What’s the crew level like right now?”
“Shoestring,” Parker replied. “We’re working with minimal crew since they halted production for the tech upgrade.”
“And how’s the upgrade going?” Ruth asked.
“Too slow,” Parker said. “They made me use some of my shore leave to requisition gear because the supply chain is backed up and deliveries aren’t happening. I didn’t get everything they wanted, but it’ll have to do. It’s a big damn mess right now. Are you really going to be able to speed things up? That’s why they brought you in, isn’t it?”
“Well, sort of,” Ruth replied. “They want my help calibrating the new equipment.”
“I guess it makes sense. When they’re messing with the sea floor, they call the trusty geologist and fly her in from the university.”
“Well, it gives us an excuse to work together again.” He gave her an appraising look for a couple seconds, then added, “You’re Clark’s favorite third-party consultant, you know?”
“I hope that’s a compliment,” Ruth said.
Parker laughed. “Depends on what you think about Clark.”
“What do you think about him?” Ruth asked.
“As oil platform bosses go, he’s only a modest pain in the butt. He’s kept the Mako operating in the black, at least, so I guess the C-suite approves of his performance. Mostly, I just try to do my work and stay out of his way.”
Just then, the chopper lurched again as a gust of wind pushed them. Stella tensed, but this time, instead of panicking, she dug into the interior pocket of her jacket and pulled out her cell phone. Stella looked a lot like her mom, Ruth’s daughter had, and even more so when she was nervous. Same blue eyes, sharp cheekbones, notable overbite. Same straight, honey blonde hair. Same mannerisms.
Ruth was tempted to keep her invested in the conversation, but she decided to leave her alone. There were times when the idle distractions of a cell phone were a good and effective tool for ignoring immediate anxieties.
“There’s going to be a huge maintenance backlog when I get there, I’ll bet,” Parker said. “Those people can’t do anything without me.”
An incompetent, bare-bones crew with supply chain problems, Ruth thought.
In truth, she wasn’t just there to calibrate the Mako oil platform’s new sensory equipment. She was also conducting an experiment of her own with her place of employment, Texas A&M. This was the reason why she’d brought her granddaughter, a bright-eyed sophomore at the college.
“This will probably turn out to be your longest stay on the oil platform,” Parker said.
“Yeah, it’s usually just short stays,” she replied. Her hands had begun to ache, so she wrung them gently. Damned arthritis acting up. “This’ll be a record for me.”
Stella sat up suddenly and locked eyes with her. “There’s been another threat,” she said gravely. “It’s right here on the news.”
“Threat?” At first, Ruth thought she was somehow still referring to the weather, but Stella held up the phone and wagged it, with a news app open on the screen. “Oh, that. To be honest, I’m not worried about them. There are always people threatening other people over one damn thing or another.”
Parker laughed at this, but it was a low and grave laugh, mirthless. He leaned back in his seat and buried his chin against his chest. Yes, Ruth was aware that some vague terrorist group had threatened the oil platform and the company that owned it, but she hadn’t looked into it. Her life was consumed by her work.
“These are not just some people,” Stella said, tucking a stray lock of her long hair behind her ear. “They’re complete weirdos, practically a cult. They call themselves ‘AI-Led Society,’ A-I-L-S.”
“And what are their goals?” Ruth asked. “What does the article say?”
“You should know about this, Gran.” Stella replied. “It’s in the news all the time. AILS wants to create a tech-led society where people don’t have to work anymore.”
“Well, to be honest, that doesn’t sound so bad,” Ruth said, trying to keep the conversation lighthearted. “Good luck and Godspeed, I say.” She laughed to show she was mostly joking.
“It’s bad if they have to bring down the current society to achieve their goals,” Stella said. “And that’s what they say they’re going to do. They’ve specifically threatened the oil platforms like the Mako among other targets.”
“Does the article say what they plan to do to the oil platforms?” Ruth asked.
Stella shook her head. “Just vague threats, at this point, but they seemed pretty determined.”
“Yeah, well, a lot of people say they’re going to do a lot of things,” Ruth replied. “This is a fringe group. Don’t let sensationalist news reports get to you.” But even as she said it, Ruth felt a moment of disquiet. Such reports couldn’t be entirely dismissed out of hand, but at the same time, it was extremely unlikely that some small-time cult could get to the rig, much less carry out their threat.
Parker gave Stella a troubled look then. He started to say something, possibly to tell her to stop talking about it. Clearly, he didn’t enjoy chatting about his place of work and residence being attacked by fringe weirdos. After a moment, he shook his head and looked out the window instead. Ruth decided to help him out.
“Let’s not talk about terrorist groups right now, Stella,” she said. “It’ll make us worry about something that’s not an actual threat and probably never will be.”
“I just hope there’s plenty of security in this place,” Stella replied. “That’s all I’m saying.”
“There’s security,” Parker said, and then shrugged and added, “On paper, at least. I suppose the best security is the Gulf of Mexico surrounding us. It’s not like bad guys can just climb on board. We’d have to let them in.”
Just then, there came a sudden hiss of static through the headset. It made Stella lurch in her seat. Even Parker shuddered. Then the captain spoke, sounding remarkably calm, his soothing voice having almost an ASMR effect in Ruth’s ears.
“Hey there, folks,” he said. “Sorry about the rough ride. We’ve had a bit of bad weather this afternoon, but we’re coming up on the Mako oil platform. Estimated arrival time, five minutes. Prepare yourselves for landing. Sit tight.”
Stella smiled for the first time since takeoff. “Finally,” she said. “I can’t wait to get back on solid ground.”
“Almost solid ground,” Parker replied. “Although it’s anchored to the sea floor, the Mako oil platform technically floats on the surface of the ocean. You won’t really feel it, though.”
But Stella was already messing with her phone again and didn’t seem to hear him. Ruth was sympathetic to the girl. At nineteen, she wanted so badly to prove she was an adult, to be strong and responsible.
I wasn’t so different at her age, Ruth thought. She’ll get there.
But Stella lowered her phone suddenly and gave her grandmother a look of frustration. “Are you being serious right now?” she said.
“What is it?” Ruth asked. “What happened?”
Stella held up her phone. “I just lost my phone signal.”
“I told you earlier, dear,” Ruth said. “There’s no cell signal on the oil platform.”
“Yeah, but I wasn’t ready for it to cut out just yet,” Stella said. “No cell phone is really going to suck.”
“Never fear, kiddo,” Parker said. “We have a phone if you need to call out, and we have shortwave radio.”
“It’s not the same,” Stella grumbled. “Terrorists. Storms. No contact with the outside world. What are we getting ourselves into?”
No Rescue will be released December 14th.