Outland: Chapter 11
My eyes kept straying out the left side of the window, hoping to catch a glimpse of land out across the water. We had crept easily up the coast of Mexico, but I knew heading all the way up the coast, as Jane and Nathan had said, was not going to be in my interest.
“Gulliver…” I spoke up suddenly.
“You have a question, Andrew?”
“Are systems prepared for submersion, you think?” I spoke, knowing myself that the answer would be uncertain.
“It’s not something we’ve undergone in quite some time. I would also factor in the lack of regular maintenance to various parts; the seals, the ballast tanks, the…”
“I understand, Gulliver.” I stopped him, partially ashamed at my failure to really do much of any work on Gulliver’s systems. Once upon a time, there would be teams of people regularly checking on the systems of bots like Gulliver. I had some know-how, but not as much as those guys. “If anything, a short test would not hurt, would it?”
“If a seal were to collapse in a vital spot, it could flood the power cells or the drive train.”
“I don’t like the idea as much as you, Gulliver, but…” I rubbed my chin, thinking. “Our best chance of proceeding here is to cross over the gulf here.”
“It’s not that I don’t like the idea, but it is ill-advised.” Gulliver explained methodically. “More so, prolonged travel underwater would drain the power cell faster, and past certain depth, the solar panels would cease to be effective.”
“We would be stranded?” I bit my lip in frustration.
I shut my mouth, continually looking out at the water shimmering in the late afternoon sun, while pondering a solution. Frustrated, I sat uneasily in the chair before the setting sun and low power indicators made us stop for the night.
Setting up my desk in the compartment below, I had Gulliver send down the radar readings he had taken throughout the journey. Just north of us, lying just at the edge of the final reading, I could see a large chunk of land sitting out in the water. With the imagine of the isle in my mind, I went to sleep, hopes high for the next day.
The next day, the bright sunlight revealed the landmark in the distance. There was a long straight of water dividing the mainland from the rest of the landmass, but it would have been small enough to trudge through it in little more than 10 minutes or so.
“That island… if there are more like it out in the water, we could easily do some island hopping to reach the other side.”
“There is a probability that there are no more islands, or that there is still too much water in between.”
“I understand that.” I mumbled, still focused on the island. “If we make it through that straight… it will prove to us one thing.”
“And…” I continued, hands tapping lightly, ready to take over the controls. “We can simply continue to the other end of the island. If we can see any land farther out in the water, we should be fine to cross. It’s worth a try.”
“I can give you my input based on readings, but the final decision is yours, Andrew.”
“Bring us to the edge of the water up there, and then allow me to engage manual controls.” I ordered, sitting back in the pilot’s seat. Out of excitement, I pulled my legs up by my chest. Gulliver continued to maneuver forwards until I could see the bare, rocky cay come closer.
Reaching the edge of the water, I looked down as far as I could at where the crumbly rock met the softly swaying water. With a good crack of my knuckles, I placed my palms upon the twin set of controls on either side of the seat. Underneath Gulliver’s feet, I could feel the rock giving ever so slightly. The empty ballast tanks met with the water and automatically began filling.
I quickly leaned into the control panel and started closing the other two hatches between the compartments of the hull. Behind me, I could hear the creaking of the hatch aperture close off, sealing the lower decks. Below, the various other ballast tanks inside of Gulliver’s hull began siphoning off air and taking on water, allowing us to sink deeper towards the bottom.
Faint splashes of water began washing up upon the Cockpit window, before the water eventually made contact. I held my breath as the sound of creaking and popping of Gulliver’s frame entered my ears. Head on a swivel, I looked around the edges of the plexiglass windows to see any traces of water entering. As the entirety of the mech slowly found its way under water, I was able to breath once again.
“Seems good to me. Anything seem amiss, Gulliver.”
“No, Andrew. We may proceed.”
With Gulliver’s stiff blessing, I shoved the throttle forwards. Sitting attentively at the edge of the seat, I felt as the movement of the water around us caused Gulliver as a whole sway back and forth gently. Each step across the dark sea floor reminded me of the old days of working alongside the trench, on the search titanomagnetite and manganese deposits among the rocks and sand. The strange floating steps felt like what I would imagine walking on the moon would have been like. The water was shallow enough in the area to allow light to filter down, but I was still on edge nonetheless.
Only a brief time later, I could see the sea floor start to reach back upwards towards the shore of our target island. I quickly engaged the pedals on the floor, allowing me to continue walking forwards while manually directing Gulliver’s arms to support our weight as we climbed up the steep incline. I quickly drained the ballast tanks upon first contact with the rocky outcropping, and I could feel the buoyancy start to aid in our ascent.
The surface of the water broke, and with a few carefully guided steps, I set Gulliver atop the beach.
“Well, that wasn’t too bad.” I slumped my arms down off of the controls, hands shaking slightly. Systems check, Gulliver?”
“All internals green. Battery charged to 66%.”
“We can continue for a bit, then.” I nodded my head confidently. “Reengage AI piloting, Gulliver. Take us westward until we can no longer go any farther. Then, we’ll take a look.”
With more arduous steps, I kept my watch pointed outwards over the water. As the light grew dim, I swear I could have seen more land, but the light would allow us to continue no further. I was almost tempted to stay up and wait for the horizon to reappear with the morning sunrise, but I quickly decided against it. Putting up the solar array, I hustled off to bed with an air of confidence.
Once again, as I had guessed, somewhere out in the water was another stretch of land. Whether it was another island like this one, or the mainland on the other side, it would bring us nevertheless closer to the Pacific coastline.
“How much longer until max charge, Gulliver?” I asked, realizing I had woken up earlier than usual; possibly out of restlessness.
“About 1 hour and 20 minutes, Andrew.”
“Very well. I’ll eat something now.” I said, pulling open my slowly dwindling compartment full of rations. “I’ll need the energy to pilot us through this stretch of open water.” Quietly munching on the flavorless bar, I watched as the sun cast interesting patterns of light rays on the water as it travelled slowly through the sky.
“We’re charged to 100%, Andrew. Shall we proceed?” Gulliver finally announced.
Sitting up as if out of reflex, my hands found their ways to the controls like they had done a thousand times before. “Let’s go.” I hummed excitedly.
The drop-off into the water was much easier this time, but the old shoreline from before the waters had risen brought a steep cliff. The ballast tanks had filled up almost all the way by that point, and with the first step, I could feel us sinking deeper into the water. The sea floor was without a doubt deeper than the last stretch of water we had traversed. Around the hull, I could hear more popping and straining of the hull. Despite knowing that we were well within the limits of how deep we would be able to go, I still felt queasy. My ears popped loudly as the pressure inside the cockpit built.
The sea floor eventually came up below us, mostly obscured in the murky dimness of the deeper water. The idea was still strange to me; that something supposedly clear would eventually filter out light until it was no longer there. Flipping the switches on the instrument panel, the lights mounted on Gulliver’s legs flickered on, casting a U-shaped glow in our path, just barely enough to navigate by.
The sea floor was muddy and silty just as I had imagined. Down south, I had grown used to a rocky, uneven base, interrupted by various cracks and rocky formations around the trench. Comparatively, this would be a piece of cake. With each step Gulliver took, tiny clouds of the soft earth wafted up in the water, particles dancing in the light beam. Before us, more blackness obscured our destination. Only the reading I had took before entering the water was there to guide us in the location of the land on the other side of the water.
Arms tired, I allowed Gulliver to take over the controls, easily able to continue us walking forwards. Needless to say, I made sure to keep myself alert, ready to take over should some obstacle show up in our way.
“Status, Gulliver?” I spoke up, my anxiety getting the better of me.
“Batteries charged to 49%, Andrew.”
“Is radar showing our destination anywhere near?” I blinked quickly, eyes focused out in front of us.
“Not yet. I shall alert you when we are within range.” Gulliver seemed nonchalant about the situation, as normal.
Fingers wriggling in anticipation, I quickly sat up and tucked my hands under my butt to easy my fidgeting. My eyes kept darting to the broken status readouts on the control panel, where at one point the battery levels had been displayed. I imagined myself running out of oxygen, breathing becoming ragged. The darkness of the water stretched on the same as usual, and I attempted to slow my breathing. Meanwhile, my heart continued to beat faster.
“Andrew.” Gulliver interrupted my pseudo- meditative state.
“How are systems holding up?” I blurted out, pulling my hands up from my sides.
“We’re at 24%. But more importantly, we’re experiencing an incline, possibly up to the landmark on the surface. I shall begin draining the ballast tanks slowly.”
I quickly breathed out a heavy sigh. “Good… good. Please continue.”
Rubble along the sea bed started to appear, and I quickly moved my hands and feet to their places on the controls, ready to take over when we would have to climb out of the water. Incline growing, I waited for Gulliver to prompt me to switch to manual mode, but the call never came. The light above grew brighter, and I could feel Gulliver starting to gain more buoyancy as the water left the tanks inside.
Finally breaking the water, I let out a final sigh of relief. Gulliver continued up towards the land, stopping as his feet touched a flat area atop the dry land. The hatch behind me reopened, and I quickly jumped out of the seat. “Open the bottom hatch, please, Gulliver.” I asked, flipping the switch to raise the solar array.
“Understood.” Gulliver complied, as I slid down the ladder to the bottom compartment. Quickly tossing out the ladder, I continued down farther to the solid ground below. Heavy drips of water rained down from the hull above me, painting the reddish-brown rock a darker shade of the earth-tone.
The island was only a sliver compared to the one we had launched from. Moving out from under the rain of water, I took a wavering seat on the ground, looking up at Gulliver. My mind felt exhausted from having to worry about if we were going to make it or not. Out on the horizon, only a short distance from the island, I could see the mountains of the mainland rise up abruptly from the water’s edge. After catching my breath, I climbed back inside Gulliver.
That night, I mapped out what I could of the readings we had taken that day. From my imagination, I illustrated the remaining arc of the gulf and the upper section of the Baja peninsula that we would be missing. I felt partially as if it were some sort of personal failure to have missed parts of the land like that, but I knew that getting over to the Pacific coast would benefit our timeline the best.