At Sea

Peri awoke with a jolt when the little plane smacked against the icy scab of tundra that served as the town of Bruntsk’s only landing strip. It was the last stop just past the edge of the civilized world, where the sky was cloaked in a cold blue-gray gloom that settled over Peri like lead.

“Professor, we’re here,” Bjorn, the Nordic pilot called back to her. It had been just the two of them for the past thousand miles or so. Peri had been on five planes since she’d left home more than 40 hours earlier, crossing the globe, due west, due north until they’d nearly run out of both.

“Thank you,” Peri said. She was tired and her body ached from being stuffed into a series of ever smaller planes with cramped seats and stale air, but that didn’t matter anymore. She was here.

As the propeller spooled down Peri unbuckled her seatbelt and gathered her purse and coat. All of her things had been sent ahead of her. She stood in an awkward crouch and waited for Bjorn to open the door of the small Cessna. The young man was very tall and he had to fold himself in half to move about the cramped interior and release the necessary latches.

“We’re all very glad you’ve returned. And that you’re well again. Mr. Haden is always, um, easier, when you’re here.”

Bjorn’s tone, his hesitancy when talking about her husband, drew a small smile across Peri’s face. Haden had that effect on people. In the years since they’d married and Peri had started spending half her life in the North, she’d learned the idiomatic equivalent to the term ‘flaming asshole’ in at least a dozen languages.

“I always come back.” Peri drew in a sharp breath and reached in her pocket. She’d nearly forgotten. She pulled out the delicate circle of rubies that she only wore when she was here and slipped it onto her ring finger.

Bjorn hesitated, shook his white-blond hair out of his face, and then said, “There’s a small, stone chapel in my family’s hometown. My mother lit candles for you.”

“Tell her she has my deepest thanks and gratitude.” Peri looked at the young pilot and raised her eyebrows. “My husband is okay?”

His face sank a bit. “Well, no. He’s still worried after…well, that was quite a scare, wasn’t it? But he’s bearable when he knows you’re coming. The rest of the time, not quite as much. You know how he can be.”

Indeed, Peri thought to herself.

The door inched open a crack and freezing air streamed into the cabin of the plane, making Peri’s eyes tear and her lungs freeze. With her first deep breath of the frigid air, it all came back to her in a rush: what it was like here, how dark and cold and lonely for months on end. For just an instant she was consumed by a flame of doubt; she wanted to yank Bjorn back into the cockpit, power up the plane, and fly away. That old panic gripped her and she ached for the heat and light that she’d left behind her. A wave of homesickness rolled through Peri and she leaned against the seat. She took another deep breath of the freezing air and willed her pulse to go back to normal, half-afraid that it would once again refuse her. She had bottles of pills in her bag to prevent that from happening, but her fingers still fluttered to the spot beneath her sternum where her chest had been sliced open and cracked in two. It was almost fully healed, finally, and the scar was very deep.

Cursing in Swedish, Bjorn kicked the door once, twice, and again, finally shattering the crust of ice that had sealed them into the cabin. Peri shrugged on her coat and gloves and hat and followed him down the step and onto the ragged patch of tundra that felt like concrete beneath her feet. With his red coat, Haden was the only spot of color in the entire landscape. Without thinking, she ran to him, like she always did. It had been over two months since she’d last seen him on her island, and she was a bit nervous—it always took her some time to get to know him again, her husband.

 

It was a short drive from the landing strip into Mott’s Harbor, the small town that Haden maintained for the people who worked for him on the ice breakers and the tankers and the ships that served Goliat. The town was one street at the frosty lip of the continent, and it housed about 500 workers when they were off duty. There was a store, a hotel, two restaurants, six bars, company housing and warehouses, and that was it. To Peri, it seemed like the bleakest place on Earth.

“We can stay at the hotel for a few days if you like,” Haden said over the diesel tick of the engine. He shifted the truck into gear and started driving.

“No, thanks,” Peri said. It was better to just get it over with.

“Fine with me,” he said as he adjusted the heater. “Are you warm enough?”

“No, never.”

He smiled. It was always this way between them after a long separation—stilted, awkward. It had been two months since they’d touched each other, much less slept in the same bed, and it took some time for things to thaw.

Peri smiled at him and brushed her fingers over his cheek. He’d shaved recently, probably for her, but the beginning of a five o’clock shadow scratched at the pads of her fingers. Her first impression of him, years earlier, had been “He’s a bit rough,” and it still held.

“You look well,” Peri said.

“That’s a miracle. My wife makes a sport out of keeping me worried sick. I haven’t been sleeping.” He shifted gears as they approached the town. Peri blinked and they were past it, headed to the marina.

Peri laughed, which always made him smile. “You poor thing.”

“That’s right. But she came back to me, so I guess my story has a happy ending.”

“For now,” Peri said. Haden hadn’t yet mentioned her heart and the hospital, so she didn’t either.

“For now,” he agreed.

 

Haden had changed little since that night when his shadow had first darkened her world. She’d been a grad student studying botany and he was in town for his company to buy a shipyard. Looking back, it seemed to Peri as though her life had been an endless summer up to that night—her days had been full of light and music and friends; she’d loved men easily and moved on just as easily, enjoying first their company and then their friendship. And then Haden bought her that drink, and nothing was ever the same again.

“So, you extract petroleum up there in the Arctic and turn it into oil?” Peri had asked him that first night at the bar in Fort Lauderdale, the night their story began. She wore a yellow silk dress that showed off her tan and her earrings looked like flowers.

“I extract petroleum and turn it into money,” Haden replied simply. Goliat was still being built, and he’d sketched out the odd, cork-shaped platform on a cocktail napkin so Peri could see what he’d created. It didn’t look like an oil rig to Peri, but she didn’t say that to Haden. She’d admired the structure—though she hadn’t really understood what it meant, not then—but it was Haden that enchanted her.

“Greenpeace must love you.”

Haden had smiled at that. “They’re big fans. They send protesters up to all our rigs in the Arctic a few times a year to express their appreciation and wave their little flags. I can’t wait until they see Goliat. There’s never been anything like it.”

Peri had laughed in surprise and drained her drink. She could still taste it. The cocktail was a deep ruby color and served in a highball glass with a sprig of rosemary and a slice of pomegranate sectioned like a bleeding heart. Peri drank the first one and then had another as she admired Haden’s features. He had a face like a gathering storm, impassive one moment and alight with furious passion the next. There was definitely beauty in it, but it was dark. He smelled like the smoke from an extinguished candle, a scent that made her want to take him to bed that night, and every night thereafter. She had two more cocktails, the sharp little pomegranate seeds bursting on her tongue like caviar, and then suggested they go back to his hotel room. He was exciting, and interesting, and worldly, everything she could desire for one perfect night. She had never planned to see him again. And yet.

“How’s the book coming?” Haden asked as he pulled into the marina.

“I’m on Chapter 6. I brought it with me. I’m hoping to get the first couple drafts finished while I’m here.”

“Any new ideas for what to call it?” Haden turned off the truck and got out and headed around to her side to open her door.

Flora of the West Indies is the working title,” Peri said. She got out of the truck and grabbed her purse. “My grad students are in St. Lucia right now gathering samples and taking pictures. Jesus, it’s cold. I made them promise to e-mail me every day.”

“When they aren’t busy getting hammered and screwing each other on the beach, I’m sure they’ll be happy to oblige.”

“You have no faith in them,” Peri said.

“None.” Haden had the same sour look on his face that he always did when talk turned to her work, the beast that ostensibly kept her so far away from him for such long periods of time, though they both knew that wasn’t the whole truth. “I’m surprised you were willing to tear yourself away.”

“No, you’re not,” Peri gave him a hard look. “Don’t start, Haden. I didn’t spend 40 hours being hurtled across the globe in tiny toy planes just to have a fight with you. An old one, at that. It’s time for you to get some new material.”

“I wasn’t picking a fight with you,”—he held up his hands before she could call bullshit—”I was just making an observation. I know it’s always difficult for you to leave. You don’t exactly miss all this.”

Peri stopped walking when they reached the long dock, its bleached planks stretching out into the water like an enormous spine to the awaiting ferry. The sight in the sea beyond the dock always stunned her a bit in its magnitude, equal parts magnificent and terrible. Beside her, Haden stopped too, and watched her.

“Is it everything you remember?”

It always took her a minute to take it all in, every time, to accept who her husband was and what he did and to clearly see what he’d built and process what it meant. There were at least forty boats between Peri and the horizon: smoking tugs and icebreakers and tankers and a massive container ship. In the far distance Goliat, the largest and most productive oil rig in the entire world, rose like a steel dragon from the icy sea, erupting torrents of flame into the endless night. Haden’s creation was a marvel of modern engineering, structurally perfect and devastatingly efficient, a monument to innovation and greed. Peri’s heart jumped with an old mad panic and she flinched at the sight of it.

“It’s fine, you know that,” Haden shook his head, irritated by her fear, but he pulled her to him and kissed her and said more softly, “It’s okay. Just remember.”

And she did. The gas flares were scheduled at regular intervals to release pressure and keep the whole operation from vaporizing to ash, but every time one went off, tearing apart the sky with blue red gold black flames, Peri felt that much closer to the end. She didn’t see how they could possibly go on this way. This was Haden’s kingdom, his legacy. It was all his responsibility—every vessel, every structure, every person—as far as the eye could see. Peri took his hand and together they walked down to the end of the dock where an old Greek named Char was waiting to ferry them across the water.

 

They ate dinner together that night, alone on a small glassed-in deck that might be called a sunroom in a more optimistic part of the world.

“I’ve missed you, love,” Haden said. He’d pulled out all the stops for Peri’s first night back on the water. There was champagne and a bottle of wine in a vintage that was special to them and a solid silver dish of the finest black caviar in the world, fished from a secret spot a few miles from where Goliat was anchored a thousand feet above the vast oil field. There was candlelight and the sound of the sea churning far below them.

“I’ve missed you too. It was weeks after you left before I got used to waking up alone. I got too used to you being around all the time.” Peri sipped her champagne, the cool fizz a welcome change from the water that she generally stuck to these days. Doctor’s orders.

In the decade they’d been together, Peri had spent half of her year, every year, at Haden’s side on Goliat and the rigs that came before it, while Haden had spent a total of 312 days on Peri’s golden island. Her easy, languid paradise simply didn’t suit him. He had no use for any world that he didn’t command; he chafed in the bright, sunny jungles where Peri thrived. His visits never stretched more than a week or two, with one notable exception: the last one.

It was her heart. She’d been in the middle of a lecture when it started to race and then go double time. She stayed conscious just long enough to ask her startled students for help, and then feel the awful sensation of her heart stopping. Peri had been dead to the world—almost literally—for most of the next few days, which included three surgeries on a recalcitrant valve. Later on, when the danger had passed, her doctor told her about the midnight phone call he’d made to her husband when things had looked particularly grim. Apparently, Haden hadn’t taken the news well.

Peri’s condition was rare for someone her age, 37, and usually went undiagnosed until autopsy. There might be more surgeries in Peri’s future, and she would be on medication for the rest of her life. Haden was holding her hand when she woke up, his face raw and unreadable. After she got out of the hospital, he stayed with her at her little bungalow on the beach for two months, until he absolutely had to return to the oil field. Even with the slow recovery from open-heart surgery and everything that came with it, they had been the happiest two months of Peri’s life.

“Dangerous thing, getting used to seeing your spouse every day. How are you feeling?” Haden watched her intently, waiting for her to lie, because that’s what she did sometimes.

“Mostly fine. There was a bad moment on my third flight when we lost altitude, but then I took some pills and felt brand new. It wasn’t a big deal.”

Haden’s gray eyes judged Peri, and she could only imagine what the weight of that leaden gaze would feel like when turned on someone that Haden didn’t love.

 

“What happened?” Jolted awake by a spasm of panic, Peri opened her eyes with her hand to her chest. It was her eighth week on the sea with Haden, but in her dream she had been in her garden, 11,000 miles from the cold endless night that she woke up to. She’d fallen asleep with Haden beside her, his arm under her neck, and now she was alone in their bed. She felt displaced, like she’d failed to make her connection and accidently slipped into the ether between her two worlds.

“I don’t know yet. They just said they need me downstairs,” Haden said. He stood in front of an antique wardrobe in their stateroom and glanced at Peri in the mirror. He dressed quickly and snapped a smooth black revolver into the holster on his pants and pulled on a coat and boots.

“Is that really necessary?” Peri asked, eyeing the spot where the gun was concealed beneath Haden’s coat.

“Only if I want to shoot someone,” Haden gave her a quick quirk of his eyebrows—it was a signal between them, a gesture in lieu of a smile. Even in her sleepiness and confusion, Peri couldn’t miss the brightness in Haden’s eyes. He lived for this kind of thing, the threat of danger deep in the night at the edge of the world.

“I’ll wait here,” Peri said. “Let me know if the rig’s sinking.”

“It wouldn’t dare,” Haden said. He kissed Peri goodbye and left with a little spring in his step.

It hadn’t taken them long to fall back into their old routine. Haden worked 16 solid hours a day, monitoring operations on Goliat and the boats that churned constantly through the water, breaking apart the larger ice floes so the smaller boats could move about the sea. While Haden was busy, Peri worked as well. She always taught her spring semester classes online, and between her students and her writing, she had plenty to do. She also took pains to e-mail and video chat with her family and friends to stay present in her other life, lest it slip away from her. It was very easy to be fully absorbed by daily life on Goliat, and Haden himself could be all-encompassing, but Peri was careful not to lose her grip on her other home, the one that felt real to her. When she grew restless, she set out and wandered around Goliat. There was always something to see.

Compared to other structures of its kind—though there were truly no other oil rigs in its class—Goliat was a floating fortress of glass and steel. It rose 26 stories above its sea-level platform, its mechanical apparati anchored to the sea floor hundreds of feet below the surface. Goliat’s drills pierced the Jurassic sandstone reservoir and foot-thick tentacles of rubber tubing stretched half a mile beneath the seafloor, sucking 10,000 barrels of oil a day out of the earth and into Goliat’s belly in a constant cycle that wouldn’t cease until the well literally ran dry.

Conditions on these types of rigs were generally cramped and crowded, but Haden had made a concerted effort to create a comfortable living space on Goliat. Nothing could be done about the long narrow hallways or the bulky pieces of machinery that kept the operation afloat, but their stateroom and living quarters were well-appointed. A few floors below, there was a library, a movie theater, and a health club that wouldn’t be out of place in Manhattan. It took Peri a while to get used to the constant thrum of metal and the sway of the rig, but she did. What she never accepted was the odd gray light staining the sky like a spill of gunpowder. It depressed Peri and made her internal clock spin like a broken compass.

“Well, fine,” Peri said to the empty room after she’d lain in bed, wide awake, for an hour or so after Haden left. She threw off the heavy down comforter and got out of bed. She showered and dressed and then set off in the direction of the dining room with vague thoughts of coffee, which the Russian crew brewed to the approximate thickness of brown paint and served with tiny powdered donuts.

Some distance from Peri’s secluded quarters, the great ship buzzed with life. In addition to the hum and clang of machinery, there was the rumble of people always milling about, back and forth, opening and shutting doors and speaking in a vivid panoply of languages. There were about 600 working on Goliat at any given time, and for Peri the walk to the dining hall felt like a journey through a very small, very diverse village. Though it frustrated her to recognize little of what they said beyond the occasional growl of “Haden,” there was something freeing about being adrift in a sea of language, idiom gushing around her like an open oil well.

The dining hall was set up like a cafeteria, albeit a very nice one. Peri got in line behind a familiar Japanese couple whom she pegged as being engineers. They were speaking rapidly to each other as the line inched forward, and Peri recognized about one word of their conversation out of every seventeen or so. “Accident.” “Girl.” “Haden.”

Though it wasn’t unusual for Haden to be called away at any time, Peri felt a tug of curiosity that intensified when the Russians behind her said something about hypothermia, one of the few Russian words that she understood besides “ice” and “petroleum.” Peri smiled at Magda and Birg, the Norwegians who ran the kitchen, as she collected her coffee and little wax bag of sweets and nodded in agreement when they expressed their concerns about the trøbbel taking place on the deck three floors below them. Going against her better judgement and what she knew Haden’s wishes would be (not to interfere here, not ever), Peri decided to head downstairs and see for herself what all the fuss was about. She was still in the stairwell when she heard the girl scream.

 

There were three of them in the center of the deck, shaded like furies in that odd gray light. The girl, wrapped in a blanket and hunched over the other two, clutching them, was screaming. The young man and young woman on the deck beneath her contorted face were clearly dead. Their faces were peaceful, but their skin was the thin, sour blue color of nonfat milk. The screaming girl, who Peri guessed was maybe 20 years old, had a thin cut trickling blood down her forehead and crystals of white ice clung to her dark wet hair. Haden was yelling at her. He was wet, and his face was red.

“I said, let them go! Go inside, there’s nothing you can do for them now. You did this, and now you have to let them go…Are you crazy, you stupid girl, you could have killed everyone…You call yourselves activists, but you’re criminals, terrorists, nothing more. And I hope you haven’t forgotten that you’re not in America. These are Russian waters. Do you have any idea what could have happened?”

There were a dozen people standing around, but nobody stopped him, of course. The girl’s screams were now truncated by great choking sobs. Peri flinched as something burned her cheek, and that’s when she noticed the specks of flame drifting through the cold air like fireflies. She pinched one between her fingers, creating a smear of ash. Over the railing of Goliat—a few hundred meters in the distance—the smoldering ruins of a boat bobbed half-submerged in the water. The residual fear of a dodged bullet seized Peri, and she understood Haden’s anger. He wasn’t just being a dick, not this time. The burning, capsized boat was perilously, uncomfortably close to the portal from which Goliat transferred its payload into oil tankers. At any given time, the belly of Goliat held up to 100,000 barrels of oil. A spark would end them all. Almost.

Peri took a breath and stepped out of the sheltered stairwell and into the chill. The girl was wet, and even covered by the thermal blanket that someone had placed over her, Peri was sure that she must be freezing. The girl was around the same age as Peri’s undergraduates, but none of their inherent joy, none of their carefree light, radiated from her. Not anymore. There was only misery. Steeling herself, Peri cut through the crowd to the center of the deck and knelt beside the girl, whose too-white fingers gripped each of the bodies.

“What’s your name?” Peri spoke softly, as if it were just the two of them.

“Jesus, Peri,” Haden said after letting out an irritated sigh, but Peri didn’t turn around to face him. There would be plenty of time to deal with that later.

“You need to let them go and come inside,” Peri said. “There’s nothing you can do for either of them, and you’ll die if you stay out here too much longer. Come with me.”

The girl said nothing, her eyes trained on her dead friends.

Peri hesitated, and then put her hand over one of the girl’s, accidentally brushing against the boy’s cold, rigoring fingers. They were curled in death—taut, obscene—and looked like they were about to snap. Peri had never been that close to death before, and she was a little surprised by the wave of revulsion that surged up her throat. She quelled it, barely.

“We need to go inside right now,” Peri said, a little more urgently. She took a breath and the cold, smoky air burned a path down to her lungs. The girl stayed silent, but let Peri hold her hand, so Peri also took the other one. This time, it was the dead young woman that she had to touch. A thin silver bracelet with a whale charm encircled her hard, cold wrist, and Peri felt anger building deep in her chest. It wasn’t right, she thought, all of that potential snuffed out in a few moments in a cold, black corner of the world that nobody could save. These kids weren’t the first protestors to reach the oil field in their deadly little boats, tweeting their triumph against the black devil and Instagramming the towers of flame shooting from the rigs. Peri had seen the pictures. They were impressively bad press, and they made Haden furious, which meant they were good. But they were gone in an instant, swept up in the undertow of culture. They meant nothing. These deaths meant nothing. And that made Peri so angry, because the world shouldn’t be that way.

Change of plan. Feeling something like resolve, Peri tightened her grip on the girl’s wrists, hard. It must’ve hurt, or at least surprised her, because the girl looked at Peri, startled. Peri spoke slowly. “We’re going inside. Now. Get. The. Fuck. Up.” With that, Peri hauled herself and the girl to their feet.

They were almost to the stairwell when the girl resisted and turned around. “But what about my friends? I can’t leave my friends.” Her accent was familiar, flat, American. To Peri’s ears, she sounded so young.

“They’re dead,” Haden said. “The dead are my responsibility.”

 

The young woman’s name was Claire. In between her bouts of wracking sobs and numb silence, Peri had managed to learn that much. Once they’d left the deck where her friends’ frozen-eyed corpses gaped at the gray sky, Peri had half-dragged, half-carried Claire to a small lounge where Haden brought his engineers when it got too cold for him to yell at them outside. Peri made the girl a cup of tea and hiked up the heat. The thermal blanket slid down Claire’s damp shoulders, but when Peri reached over and tried to fix it, the girl shrugged her off. Her dark hair was drying auburn and freckles appeared as the heat slowly returned to her body. She looked lost.

Peri sat there with Claire for a long while, until she couldn’t stand the silence any more. “What are their names?”

The girl’s brown eyes, now dull, met Peri’s. “Adam and Nikki. We met at school.”

“Where do you go?”

Claire took a sip of tea from a mug emblazoned with the Goliat logo, a seahorse with a crown. “University of Alabama. We’re in the marine science program.”

Peri thought of the pink, sandy Gulf Coast beaches and knew Claire for what she was, a child of the sun, so far from home. Peri had a pretty good idea of how the girl was feeling. She’d been beside herself with unease during her first trip through the icy waters of the Barents Sea. If it hadn’t been for Haden and the impossibility of being away from him, Peri would have been on the first plane home.

“What happened?”

“Nikki captained the boat from Murmansk. Adam helped her and I took pictures and updated our social media accounts for our followers. We sailed for two days, and everything was fine. And then Adam spotted the Goliat field and I thought we’d made it.

“Then something happened. I don’t know what. Something in the cabin started smoking and then it caught on fire and then everything went up in flames. We were stuck right there, either burning or drowning. Goliat looked close enough. I thought we could make it. I thought we had a chance. There wasn’t enough time for us to inflate the lifeboat. So we jumped in the water.”

Peri drew in a breath. She wouldn’t go in that black water for anything. The unlucky souls who found themselves adrift in the Barents Sea usually succumbed to hypothermia and were unconscious before they actually drowned, but either death was terrible. She said nothing and Claire continued.

“That water—when you’re in it, it’s like being stabbed all over. My life jacket wasn’t on right, and I kept going under. I could feel myself dying and I couldn’t find Adam or Nikki. I could hear them yelling back and forth, and then it was just Adam, and then it was quiet. The next thing I remember was that man who yelled at me pulling me out of the water onto a small boat and when I woke up on Goliat’s deck, that man was holding me in this blanket really tightly, rubbing my arms and legs. They felt like they were on fire. Everything hurt so much. Adam and Nikki were both dead.”

Claire fell silent and the tears started again. This time, she did let Peri fix the blanket around her shoulders. Between sobs, the girl gasped, “Why are you here? How can you stand it? I want to go home.”

Just as Peri placed her hand over Claire’s, there were two sharp knocks at the door before Haden barged in, his mouth impassive but his eyes alight with fury. As Peri looked from her husband to Claire, she was surprised—and a little impressed—to see dark anger come over the girl’s face. Her back stiffened, her demeanor changed. Rather than cowering in fear at the man looming over her, Claire matched his rage, measure for measure. Then Haden started yelling, for real.

“You almost killed 600 people. You almost killed my wife. My friends. Five of the best petroleum engineers in the world are on Goliat right now. Thirty welders. Twelve divers. Six doctors, eight nurses, four EMTs. Hundreds of personnel, including the team that volunteered to rescue you. They all would have burned alive.”

“Send me to jail. I’d prefer that to listening to you.”

“Jail? Oh no. Not for you. Not for this. The American government might be satisfied by a quick stroll through county jail for a photo op, but you’re a long way from home, darlin’. The Kremlin takes a harder stance on shit like this, and co-eds don’t fare too well in the Gulag. Oh, you’ve heard of that, haven’t you?”

Claire didn’t flinch. “My friends are dead because of you.”

Haden laughed in her face. “No, not even close.”

“They died because of your company’s greed. They died because of what you created. It’s the same thing.”

“They died because you’re an idiot. All of you. I saw the wreckage—there were fire extinguishers, for fuck’s sake. Goliat didn’t kill anybody. Your stupidity did. You were imbeciles for sailing up to the Arctic alone.”

“We aren’t alone. We just wanted to be first.” Rising up through the anger, there was a glint of triumph in Claire’s eyes. Peri didn’t like it at all. The girl’s eyes portended doom.

“What do you mean?” Peri asked. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Haden reach for his radio.

Claire fixed her eyes on Haden. “You’re done. Goliat is done. The whole world is going to watch us end you fucking vampires.”

Haden spoke very slowly. “Who is coming?

The girl straightened up in her seat defiantly. “Everyone. We’re Arctic Now, and we’re sick of your shit. We’re finally going to do something about it. If you have any sense at all, you’ll evacuate Goliat right now.”

Haden’s voice was deadly. “Once your friends get here, you’re all going to be rounded up and buried so deep in a Russian jail that it’ll take Amnesty International years just to find you, much less get you extradited. You’re going to rot in a foreign prison. Happy graduation.”

Haden left the small conference room, slamming the door behind him. Though part of her wanted to follow Haden—like she always did, anywhere, everywhere—Peri stayed with Claire. Haden would be off and running, raising alarms and engaging protocols, and Peri hoped Claire wasn’t quite done talking. Plus, with Haden’s rage being so incandescent at the moment, the whole rig would soon know the girl’s intentions. She was safest at Peri’s side. There wouldn’t be any accidents.

Peri took charge of Claire as the noise on Goliat rose with new urgency. She took her to Goliat’s health club to shower off the salt water and change into clothes from the gift shop. When Claire emerged an hour later, dry and pink-cheeked, she looked like a normal American college student, one who, Peri reminded herself, nearly blew them all up. While she didn’t have Haden’s scorched earth, hang ’em high attitude when it came to trespassers, Peri understood the dangers the protesters brought with them, and they grew bolder every year. Arctic Now, an organization Peri had never heard of, may or may not have had peaceful intentions, but the Arctic itself never did. Even as more travel, exploration, and drilling possibilities opened up as the Arctic thawed, it remained one of the most dangerous, inhospitable places on Earth. Nature was violent and drilling fraught with risk—the Goliat field was no place for casual observers, no matter how good it looked on Instagram.

 

Peri took Claire downstairs and they settled into a booth in a quiet corner of the dining room. The girl got some curious stares from people who were probably surprised that Haden hadn’t already packed her into a military escort set for Moscow. Magda and Birg brought out coffee and sandwiches, and Peri encouraged Claire to eat, which she didn’t. Like Peri often found herself doing, Claire stared out the window at the cold, smoke-colored sea and sky. It was early afternoon, but there was no way to tell, not that it mattered anyway. Time of day meant nothing on Goliat.

“Do you want to call your parents yet?” Peri asked for the third time that day. Claire’s parents thought she was at school, wrapping up her last semester of college, safe in Alabama studying algae and marine life. If they had any idea, Peri thought to herself.

“I’m not ready. I don’t know what to say,” Claire said, not taking her eyes off the window.

Peri nodded. She understood. She knew the thrill of adventure had worn off by the time Claire’s body hit the Arctic water, and all that remained was fear, sadness, and dread. “Do you want me to call them?”

“No,” Claire said, which relieved Peri. She didn’t know what to say either.

“Try to eat something.”

“This place doesn’t look like I thought it would,” Claire said.

“What were you expecting?” Peri asked, though she already knew. For whatever reason, she’d imagined the Arctic to have crystal blue water and bright skies and dazzling white icebergs. There would be polar bears, maybe, and orcas breaking the surface of the ocean at sunrise. There would be a sunrise, for one thing, and at night the electric lights of the Aurora Borealis would figure skate across the sky. The reality was quite stark by comparison. On most days, the Arctic looked like a different planet.

“Not this. It’s so gray. There’s no sunlight. There’s nothing here at all,” Claire said, and Peri thought she heard an underlying note of panic creeping into the girl’s voice. It was familiar.

“I know. It’s okay, though. It’s safe—safer than where you were anyway—and a lot of people get used to it.”

Claire looked across the table at Peri. “Are you used to it?”

Peri shook her head. “No.”

“You seem like a decent person. Do you work here too?”

Peri smiled. “I’m a botanist. There’s no fieldwork for me here. I study plants in the West Indies and teach at a university there for half the year, and then I spend the rest of my time here with him. I teach online and read and write my papers.”

Because of Haden, theirs was a fortunate life—Peri had no illusions about that. Financial security—no longer a guarantee in academia—allowed Peri to dedicate her career to her passion rather than burning up her talent fighting for grants or suffering under the weight of a heavy teaching load at a larger, more competitive university. No, Peri had reaped the rewards of Goliat to an extent that should’ve kept her up at night. But the things that should have troubled her—there were so many!—didn’t. It was only the darkness that she couldn’t abide.

Claire stared at Peri for a moment, judging her. “How can you live this way?”

It took Peri a moment to decide what to say. “We just keep choosing each other.”

Claire picked up a sandwich and began to nibble at it. “Why do the rest of them stay? It can’t just be the money.”

“It’s mostly the money,” Peri admitted. “But not for everyone. Not for Haden. I don’t know—I guess there’s a spirit of exploration, and the thrill of seeing things that most people will never see. And the company attracts the most talented minds and gives them the resources to work at the top of their game. It was a race to build Goliat, and then to get up here and see if it would actually work.”

For better or worse, Goliat was a source of staggering achievement. The advances made by the rig’s designers and engineers alone would carry the field of Arctic drilling well into the next decade, and new innovations were being made all the time. It was an exciting or terrifying moment in history, depending on your perspective. But it wouldn’t last forever.

One day in the near future, the petroleum reservoir would be exhausted. If Goliat ran at full capacity, night and day, for the next few years, it would extract a total of 245 million barrels of oil, more than any other deepwater drilling platform in the northern hemisphere. It would go down as the most successful, profitable venture in any multinational corporation’s history, and Haden’s work overseeing the project would be done. He would retire from the company a very rich man, and Peri would never have to set foot in the North again. That was the deal. Before Peri’s heart tried to kill her, a few more years of living in two different worlds had seemed like nothing at all. It was a price to pay, sure, but it had seemed fair, back then. Had it really only been a few months ago?

Claire was quiet for a moment. “Is he really sending me to a Russian jail?”

“I’m not sure what he’ll do,” Peri said. “I guess that depends on what happens next. If you got your friends to turn around, Haden would probably send you home first class.”

Claire shook her head. “It’s too late. I wouldn’t do it any way. You need to leave this place. Everyone does. You won’t be safe here.”

“The Russian Coast Guard will come. Your people will be arrested,” Peri said, “We’ve seen this kind of protest before. We’ll be okay.”

Claire looked at Peri, her eyes still red. “No, you haven’t. And no, you won’t.”

Peri tried not to sigh out loud. Every group of protesters thought they would be the ones to shut Goliat down. They never learned.

They sat there in silence for a while, staring out into the gray. Light rain misted the windows and Magda brought them more coffee and a plate of cookies.

“Why did you come here?” Peri asked.

“I woke up. Corporations have gotten a free pass to do whatever the hell they want, but regular people are finally starting to notice. The law is useless. There’s legislation, sure, but it has no teeth, no consequence. Arctic Now can stop them, and I want to help. Adam and Nicki did too. We can make a difference up here.”

Peri shook her head. “You can’t. The Goliat field has two years’ worth of petroleum left in it, three at the most. In the grand scheme of things, Goliat’s not going to be operational for much longer. All the protests in the world aren’t going to make a difference.”

“You’re wrong,” Claire said adamantly. “Besides, Goliat might be almost done here, but what will happen when they finish all the other rigs like it?”

Peri’s blood went cold and she looked at Claire in surprise. “What other rigs?”

 

The cloudy drizzle had resolved into a clear black night by the time Peri left Claire in a guest room and made her way outside to an observation deck. There Haden waited for her, watching the sea. His preparations for Arctic Now’s arrival were apparently complete. By now, all but essential personnel would have been sent back to Mott’s Harbor for the night—Haden never took unnecessary chances when it came to his people. The few remaining ships were all moored safely behind Goliat; even the wreckage of Claire’s burnt little boat had been hauled away, though the smell of fire lingered on the salt air. The dark sea and starless sky stretched out before Peri and Haden, as black and endless as deep space; nothing stood between them and the horizon.

“How’s the girl?” Haden asked when Peri came to his side.

“She has a name. It’s Claire.” Rage was slowly building in her chest, beneath her scar, and she wondered if he could sense it yet.

“How’s Claire?” he amended, the slight edge in his voice acknowledging her ire though unsure of its source.

“She’s alive,” Peri relented. “Thanks to you.”

“Did she ever call her parents? Did you?”

“No, she’s not ready to tell them what happened.”

“What happened?” Haden said, incredulous. “That’s a gentle way of putting it. This wasn’t exactly a drunken fender bender in the dorm parking lot.”

“Haden,” Peri said, her tone unmistakable.

“I can see the headlines now,” Haden said, undeterred, spreading out his hands, “‘Claire the Pirate.’ No, that doesn’t work. ‘Claire the Eco-Terrorist.’ Too wordy. ‘Criminally Claire’ is catchy, but not quite right. I know,”—he snapped his fingers—”‘Claire the Trespasser.’ That’s a good one. Maybe they’ll put her up in Pussy Riot’s old cell,” Haden said, laughing to himself.

“You are such a fucking asshole,” Peri said. “She’s a kid.”

“She’s a dangerous kid and she doesn’t need any goddamn encouragement. I had to shut down production. We’re losing half a million dollars an hour.”

“Her friends are dead. She almost died, “Peri said, “She came up here to wave a banner for a cause she believes in. How many people on Goliat can say that?”

“Like it or not, Peri, this is the cause we believe in,” Haden said. “She threatened the rig. She told me to evacuate everyone. Does that sound like harmless flag-waving to you?”

Peri rolled her eyes. “You don’t actually believe her, do you? Do you think this protest will be different?”

“Of course not; they’ll put up their banners, take their pictures, cry for humanity, and be on their way, like they always are. Pricks,” Haden said.

“Are you having Claire arrested?”

“What do you think?” Haden asked. There was a challenge in his eyes.

“I don’t care.”

Beside her, Haden shook his head and placed his hand on her back, over her heart. “Bullshit. St. Peri loves a lost cause.”

“You’re not, then,” Peri said. Haden leaned over and kissed her, his lips lingering near her temple.

“Of course not,” he said quietly into her ear. “That would upset you—I wouldn’t do that. Just to be clear, though—” Haden straightened and pointed to the as-yet unseen Arctic Now protestors on the horizon. “Their asses are mine.”

Haden resumed his watch. They stood there alone, two shades in the night, and Peri wondered if this was how the ancient Greeks imagined the underworld, as an endless black forever. For the most part, Peri thought eternity sounded like a dreadful idea, a terrifying collapse of time—but it wouldn’t be unbearable if Haden was there. Nothing was unbearable when Haden was around. Even when they were thousands of miles apart, he was always in her thoughts. Her heart failure had only strengthened her resolve to spend the rest of her life, however long that might be, with him by her side. But not here.

“Why didn’t you tell me about the other rigs that are being built?” Peri asked.

When Haden said nothing, Peri pressed on. “How many?”

“Eleven,” Haden said. It sounded like an admission of guilt.

Peri drew in a sharp breath of cold air. With a dozen Goliat-class rigs, they could drain the entire Arctic of petroleum. It would take decades. Fucking vampires.

“Jesus, Haden.”

“The first one won’t be finished for two years. I didn’t see any reason to tell you yet. I didn’t want to worry you after—” he stopped short, his thumb circling her heartbeat through her back. “There was never a good time to tell you.”

Peri turned so that she could look him in the eyes. “If the rigs have already been commissioned, then you’ve known about this for at least a year, probably two. That’s a long time to keep something like that from me, Haden.”

“Calm down. You can’t get worked up like you used to anymore. The doctor was pretty clear about that.”

Haden reached into his pocket and pulled out the small packet of Peri’s pills that he carried around with him in case of an emergency, which he apparently saw the potential for in this moment. He gestured at the bag and she shook her head and kept talking.

“How on earth did the company talk you into this? Never mind, that’s a dumb question. Of course they didn’t need to talk you into it—you were probably on board from the word ‘go.’ Why did you let this happen?” Peri said, though what she meant to say was “Why did you let this happen to us?”

Haden sighed. “Goliat’s performance has been impressive, better than any of us hoped for. Of course they want to do it again. The entire operation has been an unmitigated success.”

Peri felt her pulse in her throat. “For whom? I almost died and you weren’t there. Did you even consider that?”

In the half-light of the balcony, Haden stiffened. “I think about it every day. I got there as quickly as I could.”

“What if I been here when it happened? The nearest heart surgeon is a thousand miles away. I would’ve died.”

“I know. Please stop.”

Something inside Peri broke. “This was only supposed to last a couple more years, and honestly, I wasn’t sure if I was going to survive that even before…This place, it drains the life out of me. Haden, I just can’t—” Peri wiped the tears from her cheeks and pressed her hand against her chest, over her scar. “I feel like I’m being torn in two. Do you want to hear something crazy?”

Haden, his face sad and angry and something else, lifted his brow. “Sure. This is almost the worst day ever. Let’s set the record.”

“The two months that we were on the island together, after my surgery, were the best of my life. If I could go back and relive any days of my life, it would be those. I could barely walk and I had a drain in my chest, but getting the chance to wake up at home on the island, with you, every day, made me the happiest I’ve ever been.”

“Do you really want to go home?”

“Every day. Every minute. But not without you.”

At that moment, a series of booms echoed through the quiet night. Peri and Haden, abruptly torn from their melodrama, looked up in surprise at the intrusion into their world. In the far distance, a line of tiny white lights emerged over the horizon. At first there were a few, but then there were many. Dozens of boats, blazing with light like a small, fixed galaxy, illuminated the place where there had once been only darkness.

“What the fuck?” they said in unison.

Haden’s phone rang. He listened for a minute, his face growing bleak. “What do you mean their captain said they don’t want anybody to get hurt? What’s he planning? That’s insane…They’re bluffing. Please, they’re environmentalists who’ve gotten a few new toys—” Haden’s orders into the phone were cut short by another volley of booms piercing the night, closer this time.

“Were those cannons? There must be thirty boats out there. What on earth are they doing?” Peri asked Haden, bewildered. She looked up to see that her husband had returned to his conversation, his voice more urgent now.

“I was wrong. Commence a full evacuation of remaining personnel. Immediately. Get everyone else off the rig and order all the boats to dock in the harbor. There’s 65 people left on board. Get a head count,” Haden said into the receiver. He hung up abruptly and peered out into the distance. Arcs of sparkling white flares shot up from the boats like fireworks and burst in the sky in a shower of light and smoke. The night was suddenly alive, the black sea alight with noise and fire.

“What the hell are they doing?” Peri asked Haden.

“It’s maritime law, Peri. That was a fucking warning shot. They’re going to attack the rig. We have to go right now.” He took Peri by the hand and she followed his lead into the depths of Goliat, unsure how the night would end.

 

Ninety minutes later, the last people on the Goliat Arctic deepwater drilling platform, marvel of the modern era, boarded the only remaining boat in the field. There were ten people on it—Haden, his key personnel, Peri, and Claire, who looked pale, shaken, and satisfied. The boats and icebreakers and tugs that served Goliat were safe in the harbor, the oil tankers far out to sea. The line of Arctic Now vessels, cloaked in a blue haze of spent gunpowder, had stopped their advance about a mile from Goliat. Everyone on Peri’s boat agreed this was a bad sign.

As they neared Arctic Now’s defensive line, they saw boats of all shapes and sizes. At the front of the field floated a large red vessel that looked like a decommissioned Russian Coast Guard gunship, still armed. Like many others, it was emblazoned with Arctic Now’s logo. In the distance, a huge icebreaker with a pirate flag blasted music and cannon fire. They were so close now that Peri could feel the sound of it rip through her chest.

“They’re not real,” Claire said, standing beside her on the bow while Haden conferred with the Japanese couple. The woman was his head engineer, and she looked worried. None of them had wanted to leave Goliat unmanned and they’d refused until Haden insisted, practically shoving them on the boat. Now, Goliat loomed in the distance: large, empty, and silent.

“What’s not real?” Peri asked.

Claire hugged her arms across her chest. “The cannons. They make a big sound, but it’s all air and gunpowder.”

Peri eyed the girl. “The guns on the other boat look pretty real.”

Claire looked at it a little proudly. “That’s the Arctic Cross. It’s our flagship. Don’t worry though, no one from Arctic Now is going to hurt you. We don’t kill people. We kill practices.”

The girl parroted the line with such conviction that Peri might’ve admired her if she hadn’t been completely insane. Now, as far as Peri was concerned, there was nothing that Claire and her brethren deserved more than a nice long time-out behind bars.

The radio crackled and everyone on Peri’s boat watched as Haden picked it up. Peri shifted her weight and pulled her coat tighter. She was cold and damp and the freezing salt air burned through her nose and into her lungs.

“Is everyone off the rig?” a man’s voice cut through the static.

“You’re all going to prison. The Russian Coast Guard is on their way,” Haden said.

“Has Goliat been completely evacuated, Mr. Haden?” the man repeated.

“Whatever you’re planning, just stop. The company will negotiate,” Haden said.

“We won’t. The time for negotiation is over. It’s a different world, Mr. Haden. People like you are waging war on our planet, so now we’re waging war on you. No banners, no songs, no peaceful protests—we’re done with all that. From here on out, every oil field is a battleground. We are Arctic Now, and our fight begins today. In two minutes, we will fire our Igla surface-to-air missiles on Goliat.”

And that’s exactly what they did.

 

From her place next to Haden, Peri had a perfect view of the attack. She watched the scene on board the Arctic Cross as four men in red coats and ski pants hoisted missiles onto their shoulders. The crowd gathered on the protestors’ flotilla of ships chanted and cheered. Flashes from camera phones beamed images around the world as Haden said, “This is madness.” Peri took him by the hand and together they watched as the weapons were aimed at Goliat.

Peri held her breath. Like a scrying seer, she saw a maze of possible futures unfurl in front of her. What happened next would determine the course of the rest of their lives, and Peri felt her allegiance shift rather dramatically. She saw only one course of action that would lead them home; it was terrible, and it would hurt Haden, but it would save them. As she held Haden’s hand, Peri shut her eyes and smelled the warm salt air of another ocean and felt the hot breath of the jungle on her face and she made a desperate wish. Do it, she thought. Fucking do it.

 

The first missile didn’t work, though the force of its misfire knocked down the man who wielded it and he fell into the water. The second went too wide, missing Goliat and landing in the sea. The last two men fired at the same time, and their aim was perfect. The missiles screamed across the empty sky, hitting the petroleum tank seconds later. One moment Goliat towered over the choppy gray sea, a leviathan on the horizon. The next it was an inferno.

The sound of the rig blowing up, even at a distance of a mile, was the most terrifying thing Peri ever heard, like the roar of a prehistoric beast. It was the sound of a world ending violently. It was the blast of steel breaking, and glass melting, and the screech and grind of tearing metal, all at once. The fire raced up the tower, where all of the people who worked on Goliat had once lived, consuming it whole. Windows shattered and black smoke poured from a hundred empty frames. Entire floors collapsed in fire and ash. Pockets of black oil bubbled to the surface of the sea, coated in fire, and spread across the water. The flames were technicolor, the full spectrum of red and gold and orange and black, a postcard from the gates of hell.

Waves of flame billowed off the wreckage, warming Peri down to her bones with their dark, mean heat. Glittering ashes rained down on them and Peri imagined the people and the boats facing Goliat’s fiery blaze as a curious tableaux in an obscene snow globe. Flashes from a hundred cameras pierced the darkness like the Perseids.

For hours, there was nothing to do but watch Goliat burn. The Russian Coast Guard finally arrived, late and spectacular, and Peri watched as Claire, trembling and proud, was arrested along with her friends. The fire burned into the cold, bright morning as the wreckage smoldered and offered its ashes to the sea. Even as activity whirled around him, Haden watched silently, his arms crossed over his chest, and Peri never left his side. Anything she said would be wrong, and true, so she said nothing for a very long time.

When the company people arrived at the site, they had plenty to say. Haden listened, his face impassive. Peri didn’t miss a word.

Goliat’s a total loss, sir,” said a gray-haired man. He’d somehow acquired the type of crisis windbreaker the President of the United States wore to disaster zones to wear over his thermals.

“The fire will burn for weeks, Haden, maybe longer,” said a woman Peri recognized but couldn’t name. “It’ll taper down at first, but then she’ll reignite every time a fresh reserve is reached. There’s no telling how many times that’ll happen.”

“The engineers are almost certain the force of the blast severed the oil lines connected to the ocean floor, but we can’t be sure without visual confirmation from a diving team. It’s hard to say when it will be safe to send one—”

“No,” Haden said. “None of our people are going down there.”

The gray-haired man nodded. “We did get a report from a helicopter pilot flying out of Mott’s Harbor. The said the surface water is running black for miles. Some of it’s on fire. There’s talk of a multinational cleanup effort, but it’ll be too late. This place is a dead zone.”

Eventually they left, and then it was just Haden, Peri, and the fire.

 

“Your stars have aligned rather neatly, love,” Haden said finally.

“Have they?” Peri asked. Haden looked at her, and then turned his eyes back to the fire.

That night, Peri captained their little boat back to Mott’s Harbor as Haden stood at the bow and watched Goliat burn. She wondered what he saw when he looked into the flames, but she knew it wasn’t freedom. Guilt at her own happiness made Peri say something that she really didn’t want to say.

“There are other rigs. There are new Goliats being born as we speak.”

Haden shook his head. “The Arctic is done with me.”

Peri looked at her husband. “I’m not.” Haden smiled faintly and turned his gaze back to the horizon. Peri steered well clear of the wreckage, which burned black like a dying star. Its intense heat cut right through the Arctic darkness. Against Peri’s skin, it felt almost like sunlight.

Courtney Watson is a writer and college professor in Roanoke, Virginia. Her writing has appeared in 100 Word Story, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Long Story, Short, and more.

This entry was posted in Fiction and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to At Sea

  1. Gavin Ayling says:

    I feel disappointed that Arctic Now does not exist, but also at the environmental damage they wreaked. What a great story.

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