The Order of Infinity
Science Fiction Prototyping, such as the Radical Ocean Futures project that inspired this work, “is founded on the belief that sometimes science fiction might succeed where scientific papers fall short. It blends art and science and merges scientific fact with creative speculation”, producing “scientifically grounded narratives of potential future[s]”.
There were infinitely more real numbers between one and two than there were in the span of all integers. Some infinities were bigger than others.
That was how Ashni felt about the ocean and the sky.
The universe was bigger than she could ever even fathom. But the ocean was a tiny infinity right here on Earth. It was vast and dark and mysterious, and it threatened to kill you every time you moved a muscle. Not even half of it had been mapped. And it had been Ashni’s home for four years now.
She pulled herself up by the airlock and swung the lever down towards her. The circular door split down the middle and the air inside furiously bubbled up and away, replaced by seawater rapidly pouring into the airlock. If Ashni had been right above, she would have been sucked in with the current but as it was, she gently floated down into the airlock and pressed the button. The door closed and the water was sucked out by a drainage pipe on the floor. When the green light flashed, Ashni knew it was safe to breathe again. She unlocked her helmet and stepped into the inner airlock.
Just in time, too. The lights blinked off for a second, before being replaced by the cool blue of the night. “Good evening, everyone,” the cool, pleasant AI voice stated. They had baptized it with the very original name Midnight, based on the location of the base in the ocean.
The oceans of the earth were divided into four main zones. The Sunlight Zone – stopping at 200m below sea level, where most humans and known sea animals lived. Below this was the Midnight Zone. Here, no photosynthesizing creature could live since sunlight could not penetrate this far. Ashni and about a hundred other people lived in underwater bases approximately halfway down into the Midnight Zone.
There was no natural light, so no real night and day down here. But extensive studying of the behaviour of these deep-sea animals had revealed a pattern. There was a twenty-hour cycle where different animals came out and different animals rested. During what they called the day, only the smaller animals were out – weird fish, jellyfish, bioluminescent squid. (Of course, ‘little’ was relative. The jellyfish had tentacles three metres long!) During the night, it was the big animals that reigned. The giant squids, the massive stingrays and the gargantuan eels fought for dominance of the ocean depths.
It was a strange sort of evolution. The smaller animals seemed to have their separate niches; since the giant animals came out at ‘night’, the smaller animals could not be nocturnal. As the weaker competitors, this was the only way for them to avoid extinction. However, the giant animals still fought for control of their niches. Ashni did not see one of the species reducing its niche size anytime soon – she was sure at least one of the species would be driven to extinction. She knew it was bad, but she hoped it would be the eels. Those things freaked her out more than any squid or stingray.
Of course, it was possible to see a giant animal during the “daytime” with the infrared visors fitted to their suits, but extremely rare. It was exponentially more unsafe to leave the base at night, even if the day was equally as dark. So much so that all external controls on the base were not operational at night in case some deep-sea animal somehow pulled one. Squids and eels were highly intelligent, and their massive brothers were no exception. If you’d dallied too long on your mission, you’d better hope someone was watching the live video feeds. Or that someone liked you enough to keep tabs on your whereabouts.
The twenty-hour cycle had taken some time for her body to get used to, but now Ashni liked it. It kept her less tired, more active. Her mind, however, still had trouble. Within the base, ultra-violet lamps shone bright throughout the day to simulate sunlight. But the designers of this environment had not considered that Ashni was not in the base for most of the day. And unless she wanted a giant squid to give her home a big hug, the lights had to be dim during the night. Medically, she was fine since she took a ton of vitamin D supplements. Mentally, being in near-constant darkness was…not pleasant. She’d spent her first year under the sea in constant depression. Then Laurie had had the bright idea to fit her little submarine with a UV lamp. It used more power, but the government could suck it up and pay for it, unless they wanted the scandal of a crewmember offing herself.
After taking off her external gear, she was left in only the thin, heated suit that she and all the base members wore throughout the day. It was woven through with thin electrical wires that adjusted their current to regulate her body temperature. This was crucial – everything worked so differently down here that if someone were to go into shock or cardiac arrest while they were out of the base, there would be no first aid possible to save them. Ironically though, these life-saving suits were also extremely dangerous. It was like walking around with a match, begging to start a fire. To mitigate risk, the wires were all connected in parallel and so that if one were to experience an issue, the others would likely be fine.
“Another day where Ashni didn’t become the meal of a giant squid,” said a voice behind her, sighing. “When will my wish be granted?”
She laughed, turning around to face her friend. Esteban was leaning against the wall, shaking his head at her.
“You know what they say in French. Aide-toi, le ciel t’aidera.”
He frowned. “Are you telling me to murder you myself?”
“Oh no, I just stated a proverb. Do with it what you will.” They started together down the corridor. Esteban always walked in the middle. Ashni, being shorter, had more freedom to choose where she wanted to walk. The corridors were hexagonal, superposed one on top of another in the form of a diamond cubic truss.
Science fiction had often designed bases and submarines with circular, dome-like shapes. Whilst this was not inefficient, it tended to fail at the depths of 3000 metres where Ashni’s base was located. What they needed, with all the water pressure, was something that could withstand extremely high compressive stress.
A diamond cubic truss was composed entirely of two-force members – limbs that had forces applied on them at only two points. This was extremely convenient and often stronger than any other type of member. The truss also followed molecular geometry rules that allowed soap bubbles to form the way they did – angles of 109.5 degrees between each limb. However, this made the structure weak to radial compression. If a force that was not parallel to a beam was applied to it, it exerted torque on the beam, forcing the internal reactions to compensate and approach their breaking point. But by rotating each neighbouring structure by 180 degrees, this force was distributed and the bending stress in the truss was reduced. This design, commonly used by glass working students in projects, had turned into ten extremely strong deep-sea bases plated with titanium and insulated with plastic. Not just any plastic – recycled plastic from the ocean beds and garbage patches. The bases were designed with the environmental impact being the number one priority – second only to habitability.
Ashni and Esteban arrived in the central room of Habitat 9. This was the most heavily protected and solid room in the entire structure: it was where all the data storage was. If anything happened to the base and its crew, the data and research they had done would surely survive.
Esteban headed over to the right. He was the structural engineer; it was his job to make a daily report on the base and surrounding structures. He performed half of his tasks inside, the other half outside, and took careful note of everything with a microphone that was permanently clipped to his inner suit.
Ashni’s little station was right in the middle. She was the cartographer. The first thing she did every morning was go into the ocean and step into the tiny submarine that they kept on the base. She would take it out every day and map a new three hundred square-meter area, making her way around a ring of these before moving even further out. Today, she’d ventured out to a new radius of two kilometres. Using software she had made improvements and adjustments to, Ashni took note of every rock and dead plant, of every crevice and nook and cranny, of the different animal populations she saw, of anything that seemed even a little relevant.
She inputted her data carefully but waited until most of the crew had arrived to break her bad news. A lot of them did most of their work inside, so they were free to start and end later than Ashni or Esteban.
“President Karyan is dead.”
On the surface, people would have looked at her like she was insane. The 87th President of the European Union had been dead for years, assassinated by a young French woman. Down here in Habitat 9, everyone’s heads whipped around in shock.
“You’re joking,” Dora said in dismay. “You found his carcass?”
Ashni nodded. On her excursion, she had encountered what she initially thought was a rock but what turned out to be the massive, bulbous body of a dead giant squid. The shorter third tentacle had revealed that the unfortunate animal was none other than President Karyan, the giant squid who had ruled their area of the sea for three years. He had been the unquestioned king of the depths, never losing a fight to any other gargantuan animal that dared enter his territory. He’d more-or-less left the humans alone, and they’d left him alone despite urging from the surface to get rid of him.
“What killed him?” she asked. Dora was the marine biologist of the crew, and she tended to get attached to anything and everything. Esteban was the same, but it was less of a problem for him since people didn’t die often down here and he wasn’t close with the animals like Dora.
“I’d have to take a closer look to be sure but there were large bite marks.” The thirty-metre-long eels were ugly things with their colourless hide and lack of eyes, but their teeth were half a metre long and razor-sharp.
“An eel, then,” Nazuna said thoughtfully. “And an eel that’s strong enough to kill President Karyan spells bad news for us.”
“Not for all of us,” Ashni teased, shoving her. “Only the intrepid explorers.” Nazuna, the geophysicist, rarely ventured outside into the endless black. Her job mainly involved analyzing the currents using sensors she had put into place years ago. She only went out occasionally to collect rock samples for geological analysis.
“Yeah, well, Esteban was also an intrepid explorer in college and look at what happened to him. Syphilis.”
“I’ll thank you to stop sharing my sexual history with the rest of the crew,” the engineer groaned. Nazuna giggled. Those two had been friends for years – it had been real luck for them to be sent down together. “But we’ll need to be more careful now. Shit is going to change dramatically.”
It was true. The scientists down here tried to interfere with the local environment as little as possible. And since nature was highly unpredictable, when something like this happened, it was hard to know what would follow. Would there be a battle for dominance between this new eel and other giant animals? Would this affect the smaller animals? What about plant life?
Of course, the big question was ‘what about the humans?’. Their purpose down here was not a beach vacation; it was to assess the conditions of living, note the roadblocks and find the solutions to them. So far, the biggest roadblock had been coexisting with the local environment. This had been the case for nearly all the underwater bases. There were fifty spread around the world, and apart from the ones in the north Atlantic Sea whose biggest problem was the cold, everyone had issues with the unpredictability of nature. They found that if one large animal reigned, the rest of the wildlife fell in line. But at times of succession, such as this, everything went to hell. Dora was working with the crews of marine and evolutionary biologists from around the world to determine if mitigating this was even possible. Could they install themselves as kings of the underworld? Not really – not unless they wanted to drive the giant squids and eels and stingrays to extinction. And one human-induced mass extinction in the twenty-first century was more than enough. They were down here to try and repair the damages humans had done to the environment, not increase them.
The thing about living on the surface was that there was only so much surface area that life could thrive on. If humans wanted to build more accommodation for the ever-growing population, they had no choice but to build on the ground. One thing had become clear: cities that had only skyscrapers had a lower population density than cities with a lower skyline. This was because things like schools, shops, hospitals, and so many things that societies needed, simply could not be stacked on top of each other. Humans did not fly, they walked – but so did all the animals they needed to share space with. Surface living was, to some extent, two-dimensional.
Down here, everything changed. For now, they had not only surface area but volume too. If a habitat sprung up, the fish would swim around it – not be forced out of the area completely. And now they could build taller because they no longer only walked, they swam too. Forget living on Mars, in the clouds of Venus. They had prime real estate right here, and it would be ridiculous to not take advantage of it.
And they had a whole host of advantages to it. Energy? The underwater currents (or volcanic activity in some places) were so strong that they easily powered turbines down here, making the bases independent and non-reliant on fossil fuels. Oxygen? They barely breathed it. The concentration of oxygen necessary for life at the surface was about 21%. But even then, oxygen was a highly corrosive gas. It browned apples and rusted metal. Under pressure, it did terrible things to humans as well. So down here, they breathed mostly helium and only 2% oxygen. It had had no negative impact on the crews so far, but of course, they were the guinea pigs. If there were negative long term effects of breathing helium, they wouldn’t know of them until after the crew’s mission was up and they were breathing oxygen again. This kept Esteban up at night; Ashni, not so much.
Of course, something that they wouldn’t have had to worry about on Mars was the local flora and fauna, since there was none. It was of the utmost importance under the sea. In the twenty-first century, humans had caused an immense number of species to go extinct because of deforestation and habitat destruction. Almost two centuries later, on the ocean floor, humanity was determined to become a part of the environment and not take it over. When Ashni went out every day, she remembered the philosophy of her Indian ancestors. You are one with the universe and the universe is one with you. If she damaged any part of the environment, she was damaging herself. She was far from religious, but it helped her remember her mission here.
“Big news from the surface!” Ishmael crowed, dancing in. The crew communicated with the surface every day, usually through Ishmael. Not because it was his job, but because no one else could stand talking to the bureaucrats. In return, they all gave him a part of their desserts every day. “Three guesses, go.”
“They’ve observed the graviton!” Nazuna speculated.
“That’s not big news. No one cares about that except you and like three other people,” Esteban snorted. “Someone declared war on someone?”
“No, you all suck. It’s some rich asshole who did something controversial,” Ashni said.
“Bingo!” Ish sank into his seat. “He held a party down at his residence in New Atlantis and there was a massive oil spill.”
Ashni had the same question. There was no reason for anyone to have enough oil to create a problem down in one of the underwater cities.
“It was a ‘Throwback to 1900’ party. They tried to fuel one of their subs with petrol. Obviously, it failed.”
“That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard,” Dora announced.
“You’ve never heard Esteban speak then,” Ashni replied, earning herself a half-hearted kick from the man next to her. But Nazuna had other concerns.
“There’s going to be an investigation into us now,” she said thoughtfully. “Into whom we plan on integrating into our cities.”
The governments of the United States and England had already built underwater cities in the Sunlight Zone of the ocean. They were small cities, with populations of around 1000 people, mostly located in the Mediterranean and central Atlantic: zones of low seismic activity. These, to the outrage of most, were predominantly inhabited by the upper class and were grossly misused. Those who had donated millions to the project were of course gifted the best habitats – which became mostly uninhabited whilst in their possession. The rich treated this project like a winter getaway, like a beach house in Florida.
To rectify this error, a new project was born in collaboration with the governments of ten different countries. The construction of research bases in the Midnight Zone of the oceans was sure to never attract the super-rich; only those who were truly interested in making this project thrive. Living at this depth was considerably more dangerous and difficult than at only 200m under the surface. It was also not as romantic given the fact that it was pitch black all the time…
And yet, thousands of rich people were clamouring and entering bidding wars with each other to be the first ones to live down here. Ashni didn’t understand it. She liked this life – but then again, she liked to be alone. She liked the solitude of her job, and she liked the family she had gotten used to down here. She knew she was probably the happiest of the crew down here. Esteban was a social butterfly; Nazuna not as much, but she was still fueled by the energy of those around her. Ishmael loved being connected to the world – which was probably why he liked communicating with the bureaucrats.
But Ashni supposed it would be different once there was a city down here. It wouldn’t be just one lonely base, with the next ten kilometres away. It would be a massive complex, all interconnected, with artists and musicians and all the people who made life worth living.
This project was supposed to help solve the housing crisis, the overpopulation crisis, and the environmental crisis. Ashni knew that up on the surface she and her crew were hailed as heroes. That her name would appear in history books. But to be honest, she didn’t care. As her expeditions approached the radius of five kilometres that was necessary for a city to be built, she felt a growing sense of sadness. Her time down in her little infinity was running out. Soon, she would have to leave the freezing depths and return to the surface, where there were constantly people everywhere.
She had not seen sunlight in years, and yet her days down here were the brightest of her life.
When she was out in her submarine, she often felt the urge to venture out further than she should and keep going. To use the twenty-hour helium supply to the fullest and fall into the depths of some deep, yet undiscovered trench, leaving behind only her maps of infinity.
Not yet though. There was still work to do.
“Tomorrow, we can put up extra sensors for the new giant eel. Maybe we can call it Elodie Frontenac,” Esteban suggested.
“Very fitting. And if something kills Elodie, it’ll become The Capital Punishment in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Ashni yawned and stood up. “I’m hungry.”
The second the words left her mouth, the slow beep of an alarm started to sound. Something had breached the perimeter of sensors. Something with a diameter bigger than a metre.
Laurie’s voice crackled on the intercom. “All crew to the main deck now! I repeat, all crew to the main deck now!”
Ashni pushed Dora out first, then Ishmael and Nazuna. The beeping sped up. The thing was approaching. “I guess Elodie decided to show up early,” Esteban remarked.
He held out his hand. She took it. It was infinitely warmer than any sunlight could ever be.
I’ve always loved science fiction, but I often found it was too far-fetched. Ropes made of light, teleportation? I would likely enjoy these things in a fantasy novel, but when the author twists science in insane ways for the story to make sense, I don’t tend to like it very much. Then I discovered authors like Michael Crichton and Liu Cixin. These are scientists – one a doctor, the other a physicist – who took up writing and whose books involve highly original stories which rely on actual science. (Some of their books even include actual computer code!) My purpose with this story was to emulate that, including elements of fiction such as giant eels and stingrays, but still relying on science to craft the world. My biggest inspirations/references for this project were Sphere by Michael Crichton, Mapping the Deep by Robert Kunzig, and material from some of my collegial physics and biology classes. Both books include amazing explanations of deep-sea conditions. The idea of breathing helium in the deep sea comes directly from Sphere, and the structure of the underwater base relies on engineering statics material. This story is for an audience that wonders about the impact literature and art can have on the real world.
Photograph, Deep Sea Blues, by Mark Chadwick distributed by CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.
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