Cover image for Oceanspace
Steele, Allen M.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Ace Books, [2000]

Physical Description:
375 pages : illustrations ; 22 cm
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
X Adult Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



Allen Steele has won two Hugo Awards, a Nebula nomination, the Locus Award, the Asimov's Readers Award and the 1998 Science Fiction Chronicle Readers Award. Now, he presents a novel in which mankind's future lies not among the stars...but beneath the waves.Tethys--the world's first completely self-sufficient undersea research station. It is the stepping stone to a new frontier of life on Earth. Within this oasis of technology are those who seek to unlock the mysteries of the unknown deep. But they are not alone...

Author Notes

Allen Steele was born in Nashville, Tennessee, and received his B.A. in Communications from New England College and a Masters Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri. Before turning to science fiction, he worked as a staff writer for newspapers in Tennessee, Missouri, and Massachusetts, as well as Washington, D.C. His previous novels include Orbital Decay; Lunar Descent; Clarke County, Space; Labyrinth of Night; Jericho Iteration; The Tranquility Alternative; Oceanspace, and Chronospace (all available from Ace). He is a two-time winner of the Hugo Award in the novella category. He lives with his wife, Linda, in Whately, Massachusetts.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Award-winning young hard sf scribe Steele dedicates this book to Sir Arthur C. Clarke--appropriately, for it is the closest thing in years to Clarke's classic The Deep Range (1957). Early in the twenty-first century, the first completely self-contained, permanent, inhabited underwater research facility, Tethys, is about to go into service. It has, however, more than formidable technical problems, numerous as those are. Would-be polluters and exploiters of the oceanic environment oppose it, its scientific support is divided into factions, both above and below water (Steele treats the politics of big science with a fine satiric edge), and it may have invaded the habitat of what the term sea serpents very inadequately describes. Steele has done his technical homework thoroughly, and he writes with an eye to pacing, dry wit, and accurately portraying working stiffs of the future, chief among them submarine driver Joe Niedzwiecki. Hard sf adventure doesn't get a whole lot better than this. --Roland Green

Publisher's Weekly Review

A cluster of major SF awards (including two Hugos) distinguish Steele's r‚sum‚. It's notable, though, that most are prizes voted upon by fans rather than SF professionals. Steele's new novel mirrors his award-winning work. Set upon and deep within the Atlantic, it's a tightly crafted, highly atmospheric tale, but one that takes no risks and breaks no ground aesthetically or conceptually. During seven days in June 2011, a crew of scientists working for an oceanic mining corporation plus a few others set out to explore a newly arisen smoker (a hot vent teeming with primordial life) on the ocean floor--with the venture including a side trip to glimpse, hopefully, the strange beast-a sea serpent?-that has almost totaled a crew member's small submarine. Steele borrows his company from central casting--there's a salty sea captain, a pretty female scientist and her hunky scientist-husband, a venal journalist, a spunky teen, etc.--but he draws them sharply and tosses them into a captivating whirlpool of adventure, including corporate intrigue (one scientist plans to sell vent samples for millions to a rival corporation), romantic shenanigans (the journalist has eyes for the hunk) and lots of undersea derring-do. The high-tech detailing of oceanic habitats and vessels is first-rate, and Steele efficiently and effectively evokes the cold, dark and unrelenting alienness of the world deep beneath the sea. This novel is perfect for whiling away a plane trip or a stormy night, offering a comfortable, soapy blend of melodrama and action--nothing unexpected, nothing special, just a yarn that entertains modestly but very well. (Feb.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

The undersea research habitat known as Tethys, deep beneath the surface of the Atlantic, exists to provide information about the unexplored ocean depths--until a close encounter with a monstrous creature of unknown origin sparks a tense battle of secrecy and betrayal. Steele (Labyrinth of Night) deftly portrays the tenuous nature of humanity's relationship with the sea in this taut, suspenseful sf adventure, which should appeal to fans of underwater action. (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter One Kraken 6.4.11-1024 EST Off the Atlantic coast of the United States, just past the edge of the continental shelf, rests a broad submarine terrace known as the Blake Plateau. Located approximately 2,500 feet below sea level, the plateau stretches from Cape Hatteras to the Bahamas, and extends nearly one hundred miles out into deep ocean before it abruptly ends at the ragged escarpment which marks the farthest edge of the North American continent; beyond that lie the vast undersea plains of the Atlantic Basin.     The Blake Plateau is a prehistoric relic of the last ice age. The same climatic shifts which caused walls of glacial ice to advance across Canada into the Midwest also dropped the average sea level to the present boundaries of the continental shelf; when the glaciers receded during the Oligocene epoch some 25 million years ago, the seas rose and the continental shelf gradually vanished beneath the waves. As it did, rivers and estuaries carried post-glacial sediments across the new coastline to the Florida-Hatteras Slope, where they settled upon the leading edge of the tectonic plate forming the American continent. Thus the Blake Plateau was created.     Down here, there is no sunrise or sunset, only the eternal midnight of the abyss, pierced briefly by quick-moving sources of bioluminescence: gape-jawed anglerfish, gulper eels, and tiny squid, stalking one another in the frigid darkness. All else is dark, and still.     And then ... something moves.     First, there's a faint sound: the gentle thrum of props, like the distant echo of a submarine earthquake, yet constant, more regular. Then a dim, horizontal row of lights ascends from unknown regions far above. As the light pierces downward, it startles the fish and eels; for a few moments they break off their deadly games to swim a little closer and investigate the source of the light and sound, until it becomes apparent even to their primitive minds that the intruder is alien to their world, and therefore dangerous. They speed away before the narrow swath of light can find them.     Downward the machine glides, the forward end of its long form backlit by thallium iodide lamps: a pair of enormous, multijointed manipulators mounted above a titanium sphere, itself connected by a slender collar and thick steel trusses to a long cylinder, on top of which was mounted an open-top cargo bed. Two barrel-shaped maneuvering thrusters are positioned along its port and starboard sides; at the aft end, recessed within a cone-shaped cowling, is the lazily rotating propeller of its main engine. There's no color down here--even within close proximity of the halogens, everything is rendered in muted shades of greenish gray--so there's no way of telling that the submarine is painted bright fluorescent yellow, interspersed with bands of reds and white.     At the front of the sphere, below and between the arms, is a single, cyclopean eye: a Plexiglas window, two inches thick. Dim light glows within the porthole, silhouetting a vague form. A creature not born in this dark universe, yet, due to a long series of evolutionary processes stretching back millions of years, a distant cousin nonetheless.     A man. A human being. Joe Niedzwiecki. One eye on the porthole, the other on the bathymetric chart displayed on the computer screen beneath the window, Joe Niedzwiecki gently pulled back the yoke. The bottom itself was still invisible through the dish-size porthole, but the steady, high-pitched pings of the passive sonar told him it was down there nonetheless, coming closer with each passing second.     Joe inched back the yoke a little more, then found the throttle bar with his right hand and yanked it back to neutral. Gravity would take care of the rest; all he had to do was make sure the little submersible didn't crash-land. The silt stirred up by the thrusters was becoming more dense, as if he was flying through a thick green cloud. Two fathoms ... one and half ... one fathom ... and suddenly the floodlights captured a flat, muddy surface just below him, strewn with small, dark brown rocks.     There was an abrupt jar as the DSV's skids connected with the seafloor. He checked the screen again, smiled to himself. Touchdown, right on the money. Joe bent over the keypad, typed in a brief message: DSV-02 Doris. On bottom: W78.2°S29.9° 810m. Over .     He tapped the transmit key, settled back in his chair. This far down, instant communications with the surface were impossible; he had to wait while sub's Extra Low Frequency transmitter pulsed his message to the radio buoy he had left on the surface, which in turn would relay it to Tethys. With a transmission rate of only a few words per minute, there was no room for him to send any lengthy sonnets, or even a decent haiku. Once more, he pushed to the back of his mind the fact that this information was pertinent only in the event of an accident. If the titanium hull of Doris 's crew sphere failed now--if, say, there was the merest hairline fracture between the porthole's glass and its frame--then nearly two thousand pounds-per-square inch of hydrostatic pressure would pulverize him so quickly that there would be no time for him to send a distress signal. So relaying his coordinates was only standard operating procedure, in the event Tethys had to send down another boat to pick up the pieces.     While he waited for the base to respond, Joe reached under his seat for the CD box. During the hourlong descent, he had listened to Miles Davis's Bitches Brew album on the CD player rigged beneath the sonar panel on his right side. Good music for a deep dive, but now he needed something a little less spooky. He wavered between Hancock and the Marsalis brothers, and finally settled on Coltrane's A Love Supreme . Cool, mysterious jazz for a cool, mysterious world.     The ELF panel above the porthole came alive as he was pulling out the Coltrane CD. 6.4.11/1026 EST TETHYS TO DSV-02 DORIS COPY LAST TRANS, PRES. COORD. PROCD W/ SER. & RET. OVER     Good. Now that the formalities were dispensed with, he could get down to serious diving. Joe slipped in the Coltrane CD, carefully turning down the volume so he could still hear the forward range sonar; every five seconds, it transmitted an acoustic pulse at 8.1 kilohertz. He found the water bottle in its nylon web next to the seat, took a slug, then spat on the deck between his knees for good luck. One more seaman's custom; only he and Mike Cilantro, Tethys's other deep-sub pilot, knew that there was an antique silver dollar taped beneath the control yoke where no one could see it, and he had made sure to place his right foot first on Doris 's ladder when he climbed aboard. Having a naked woman aboard might have helped, too--ancient legend had it that Poseidon liked the presence of nude women aboard ships, which was why vessels used to sport bare-breasted figureheads on their prows--but he doubted that his wife would have approved. Even if she herself was willing to make a dive with him, which she wasn't, there wasn't enough room within Doris's cramped confines for him to take proper advantage of the situation.     On the other hand, even if he could have smuggled Karen aboard, he probably wouldn't have. Although a passenger seat was folded away in the back of the crew sphere, Joe preferred making these sorties by himself. It was a little less cramped that way, and besides, he enjoyed the solitude. Going down here was like visiting another world, but even the astronauts on the new lunar base didn't have the Moon all to themselves. Spit on the deck, a silver dollar, and a good onboard guidance system: that was all the assistance he needed now.     Oh, yeah ... and a proper fix on Porky.     The electronic chart showed that he had touched down on a gentle slope about thirty nautical miles southeast of Stetson Mesa. Joe typed the robot's serial number into the keypad, then asked the computer to display its coordinates. An instant later Porky's present whereabouts appeared on the screen. Joe smiled as he studied it; the mining robot was only about a mile and a half northeast of his present position, bearing 40 degrees tree North. All he had to do was lock onto its transponder signal, and the computer would navigate him straight there.     He pushed forward the throttle bar and pulled back the yoke. Doris lifted her skids from the muck; he turned the yoke a quarter of an arc to the right until a tiny red spot on heads-up was aligned with a yellow pointer, then he gave the main prop a little juice and off he went across the sea bottom     The Doris was essentially a deep-ocean truck. Although it could conceivably be used for exploration, it was specifically designed as a workhorse to service the teleoperated mining robots which prowled the Blake Plateau. As Doris skimmed across the sea bottom at an altitude of little less than a fathom, its floodlights caught thousands of the dark nuggets, ranging in size from golf balls to Idaho potatoes, spread so evenly over the ocean floor that they looked like a vast field of charcoal.     No one knew the exact origins of these manganese nodules. Although it was theorized that they were precipitates of dissolved metals in seawater, why they lay on the sea bottom instead of buried beneath the muck was a question which still puzzled oceanographers. Discovered during the H.M.S. Challenger expedition of the 1870s, they remained little more than a scientific curiosity until the 1960s, when industrialists first proposed harvesting them, for each nodule was a miniature lode of valuable metals: manganese, cobalt, copper, nickel, even trace amounts of gold. Quite valuable when gathered by the truckload, yet it wasn't until the last decade or so that the technology was finally developed which would make sea mining economically viable.     Joe followed the arrow on the screen as he homed in on the robot. The side-scan sonar pinged as it found something just ahead of him; at first he thought it was the robot, until he checked the chart and saw that Porky still lay three-quarters of a mile away. He throttled back on the main screw and raised altitude by a fathom, and presently something loomed out of the darkness just ahead: an angular, man-made shape.     He cut the main engine and used the thrusters to cautiously approach it. The DSV's lights caught the broken prow of what looked like a wooden fishing boat. No telling how long it had been down here, or where it had come from. Silt covered its battered hull, and tiny albino crabs prowled its decaying planks. The stern was nowhere to be seen. Probably a schooner which had broken apart and sunk during a storm uncounted years ago; if her crew hadn't survived, the crabs had doubtless disposed of their bodies long ago.     Another time, he would have liked to find and explore its debris field, see if there was something down here worth salvaging. Even a brass deck fixture could fetch a hundred bucks from an antique dealer. But he was on the clock, and Miles Bartlett frowned on wreck diving during company time. He reluctantly left the boat behind and continued following the GPS beacon to its source.     The sonar beeped sharply as it registered a metal contact. Joe caught sight of a pair of red strobes winking at him from far away in the darkness. No longer needing the computer to guide him, he turned the rudder a few degrees starboard as he throttled down again, and within minutes his lights found another alien object in the black depths, one much larger than the fishing boat.     "Hello, Porky," he murmured. "Long time no see."     No one Joe had met could explain why exactly the mining robot was called Porky. Certainly it didn't look like any hog he had ever seen, and Joe had been born and raised in Indiana farm country. A little larger than a John Deere harvester, it also bore a vague resemblance to one: an enormous, rectangular machine riding on tandem caterpillar treads. The four dustpan-shaped dredge heads beneath its undercarriage scooped up nodules and fed them through semicircular tubes into its diffusers, which sifted out the silt and spat it out through vents behind the machine, leaving behind a small bin of nodules. When the onboard computer sensed that the bin was full, it shut down the robot and awaited further instructions from the surface.     Teleoperators on Tethys guided Porky during every step of the procedure, piloting the robot through a complex sequence of ELF signals transmitted from the base and downlinked through geosynchronous satellites. Porky had a companion robot--predictably named Elmer--but it was currently dry-docked at Yemaya's base of operations in Jacksonville. The big harvesters cost $20 million apiece, and although they could be operated at the same time, the company was unwilling to risk deploying both of these costly--and notoriously finicky--machines simultaneously. So Porky spent six months at sea while Elmer took a vacation, and then vice versa.     The only catch was that once the robots were down on the plateau, they were down for keeps; it was prohibitively expensive to bring them to the surface every time their bins were full. In shallow-water operations, inflatable lift bags might have been used to bring up their cargo, but that was clearly out of the question this far down; ditto for the idea of dropping ballast, since lead shot would be outweighed by the nodules. So there was only one practical solution: every two weeks or so, a DSV had to go down, pick up the load, and haul it back to Tethys.     This time, it was Joe Niedzwiecki's turn to bring home the groceries.     Porky's operator on Tethys had put the big machine on standby mode, so Porky had come to a halt, its vents clear of the cloudy silt it normally left its wake. Behind the harvester, he saw the long, shallow furrow it left along the seafloor. Once again, he was oddly reminded of the swath a combine makes through a cornfield in late September.     Now for the tricky part. Joe cut all engines, set Doris down on her skids. When the sub was motionless, he reached up to the low ceiling above him and pulled down the RMS hand controllers. When they were in position at shoulder height, he toggled the activator switches on the dashboard, then fitted his palms within the grips and gave the triggers a brief, experimental squeeze.     Through the porthole, he watched the manipulator claws clamp shut. He relaxed his fingers, and the claws spread open again. The remote manipulators looked fragile, but on the second day of his training course, his instructor had placed a quarter-inch lead pipe between them, then shimmied into the cockpit and proceeded to tie it into a loose knot. Graduation exercise consisted of performing the same feat, two thousand feet under water. Joe's knotted pipe presently rested on the living room floor of his Jacksonville condo; his kids were still trying to undo what their dad had done in less than a minute.     So the RMS arms checked out. Good. He left the claws open, took a moment to wipe his hands on his jeans. As an afterthought, he turned around to stab the pause button on the CD deck--too much of a distraction--and reached beneath his seat for the water bottle.     The side-scan sonar gave a loud beep as it suddenly detected something as startling in the silence of the cab as a footfall in an empty house.     He glanced up, and something moved past the porthole.     It whisked through the lights so quickly, he caught only the most fleeting glimpse of it.     Joe peered through the porthole, then turned his head again to check the sonar screen. He didn't see anything else, though, and the sonar remained blank.     He gazed out the porthole for few seconds, and finally relaxed. This far down, there was no telling what a sub driver was likely to see, and thick Plexiglas has a tendency to magnify even the smallest of sea life. Probably a cuttlefish checking him out.     Back to work. He carefully aligned the manipulators until the arms were straight ahead, the claws open. All he had to do now was maneuver Doris a little closer to Porky and set her down directly behind the harvester; once he was close enough for the RMS arms to reach the bin, he would detach it from the robot and empty its cargo into Doris's cargo bed. Another glance at the computer screen--nope, no problems there--and he was ready to go. Once again, he reached down to pick up the water bottle.     Something slammed against the sub's port side.     The impact was hard enough to rock Doris on her skids. Joe's forehead struck one of the hand controllers; he yelped and the water bottle fell from his fingers and rolled across the deck as he instinctively grabbed the yoke for support. In the confusion of the moment, the harsh beep of the sonar barely registered on him.     "What the bloody ...?" He raised his eyes to the porthole, and felt his heart stop.     A vast gray form glided past the window.     No head, no tail. Just something that looked like a segment of a fireman's hose, except much larger: at least six feet in diameter, so close to the window that he could make out the deep wrinkles in its mottled flesh.     Powerful muscles rippled beneath its skin, and the submersible shuddered as the thing made contact again with his vehicle.     Then Joe heard the sound DSV drivers dread the most: the faint creak of hull seams under pressure. Exactly the last thing you want to hear at 2,650 feet.     That was all it took. Whatever this goddamn thing was, he wanted it off his boat. He grabbed the hand controllers and yanked them back as far as they would go, then dipped the arms and opened the claws. Then he rammed the arms forward.     The claws dug into the creature's firm flesh with as much resistance as if he was grabbing an inflated inner tube, yet for a moment he managed to get a grip. He thought he'd get a good look at this thing, but it easily writhed out of the claws and, too fast for his eye to follow, slithered away.     A long, tapering tail, with a single dorsal fin running down its back, whipped past the porthole, then it was gone.     Joe sank back in his seat. His heart beat against his chest; cool sweat drooled down the inside of his chamois shirt. All was silent, and there was nothing on the other side of the porthole.     Whatever it was, it had vanished.     Whatever it was, it was the size of a friggin' truck.     He took a deep breath, then reached for the keypad. Better send a quick squib to Tethys, tell whoever was on watch what he had seen down here. They were never going to believe--     He stopped himself. Damn straight they were never going to believe this. If fact, they'd probably send him to a shrink. So long as Doris remained undamaged, he'd never have any proof that ...     The hull shuddered, ever so slightly, as something nudged the engine cowling.     Joe grabbed the RMS controllers and hauled the arms back again as he peered through the porthole. Nothing in sight, save for Porky a couple of dozen yards away, yet he had no doubt that the creature, whatever it might be, wasn't done with him yet. This time, though ...     The camera. He remembered the 35-millimeter digital camera positioned beneath the floodlight rack, outside the sphere and under the porthole. It was seldom activated during grocery runs--you've seen one field of manganese nodules, you've seen 'em all--but it was always loaded with a film disk.     He reached to a panel on his left, snapped the toggle switch which turned on the camera. A digital readout flashed 120, indicating the number of frames available. He snapped the autofocus toggle, then found the switch which activated the motorized shutter control ...     Beep!     He looked back at the porthole, and a pair of enormous jaws rushed straight at him.     A wide, lipless mouth filled with razor teeth slammed against the porthole. The sub rocked backward and he was thrown against his seat. In that instant he was certain he was dead; the Plexiglas would shatter, and his life would be snuffed out in a catastrophic implosion. But some assembly worker at General Dynamics had earned his Christmas bonus when he installed Doris 's window, because the glass held and he got to live a few moments longer.     Black and unreflective eyes, the size and shape of the buttons on his old Navy pea coat, stared through the porthole at him. He remembered the camera, and reached up to stab the shutter control switch with his finger.     Then the eyes and the evil mouth vanished, and Joe barely had time to wonder whether the camera had captured anything before the monster attacked the sub again.     This time, it hit hard enough to do serious damage. The DSV made a sickening lurch to the right, and Joe was almost hurled from his seat as one of the legs supporting the starboard landing skid buckled.     A checklist fell from its hook into his lap and CD jewelboxes skittered across the deck as Doris toppled to the right. The interior lights flickered and a half-dozen different alarms went off at once, yet somehow, by either miracle or damn good engineering, the titanium sphere remained intact.     Joe didn't need the buzzers or bells to tell him that Doris was doomed. If the sub was listing this far to the right, then the starboard thruster was probably disabled. A glance at the hydraulics panel confirmed that notion; the electrical meter belonging to the suspect thruster was flat-lined. Without it, his vehicle wasn't going to make it back to Tethys under its own power.     And that thing was still out there. If he remained here any longer, he was crab food.     The computer was showing error codes, but the red diodes on the main electrical panel left of the porthole were still lit, its meters still in the green zone. He went straight to manual. He snapped the set of toggle switches which dropped the ballast, the lead bars beneath the afterbody which he normally discarded when it was time to rise.     The deck tilted downward slightly as the DSV's rear end began to rise, but then it stopped. Dammit, the broken skid was probably mired in the muck.     Either that, or the creature itself was weighing him down.     It had been nearly fifteen years since Joe had passed his Navy tests and earned his deep-sub pilot pin. Two dolphinfish on either side of a bathyscape; he'd never worn the pin himself, though, and he had given it to Karen as an engagement present. Now, unaccountably, the only thing in the world that he wanted was to see that pin again.     Joe hit two more switches, and the interior lights dimmed as he jettisoned the external battery packs. Now he was on emergency electrical, just enough juice for the lithium rebreather system and the auxiliary power units. Yet discarding the extra weight seemed to do the trick. The DSV began slowly to rise ...     But not fast enough.     There was a distant thud against the afterbody; he heard a long, sickening creak, then a sudden snap as something behind him gave way. He couldn't see anything through the porthole except stirred-up mud.     "Oh, you fucking bastard!" he yelled as he jabbed another pair of switches on the hydraulics panel. "Get the hell off my boat!"     There was a dull pop from above and behind him, then the sub groaned and lurched upward. Through the porthole, he saw the RMS arms fall away, plummeting like a pair of oversize lobster claws. They raised a cloud of fine silt as they silently struck the seafloor, then they vanished as Doris began to ascend, a little more quickly now.     Joe glanced at the analog depth meter above the porthole. Yes, he was falling upward, but he didn't have enough juice to run the main engine, and he was defenseless without the RMS arms. Yet at least he couldn't see the ...     A long shape moved past the porthole, farther away now, just within range of the floodlights.     Was it staying down here, or was it following him to the surface?     He cinched the lap and shoulder straps fight around himself, then flicked a look at the digital camera readout. Yes, it had been shooting pictures all this time, one frame per second. Twelve frames left--Jesus, had this happened so quickly?--so maybe he managed to get something on film ...     Don't worry about that now. He had to send an SOS topside, pronto.     He was reaching for the keypad again when a sixteen-wheeler slammed against the afterbody. Alarms wailed through the tiny cockpit, and he smelled ozone. Something inside the sub was on fire.     Joe reached back for the locker containing the emergency air mask, dragged it out by its hose. He clamped it against his face--now he could see only through its lenses--then he found the keypad again. No time for a complete message; he tapped in an emergency transponder code he had memorized a long time ago, then hit the transmit button on the ELF panel. Even as he did so, he was all too aware that this was probably the last act of his life ...     No. He had a wife and two kids back home. One way or another, he was going to see them again ...     "Oh, hell," he murmured into the mask. "Someone's going to be pissed about this."     He reached down to a candy-striped panel on the floorboards. He grasped its recessed handle, twisted it counterclockwise, wrenched it open. A red T-bar was buried within the panel. Joe took a deep breath through the air mask, then grasped the T-bar between the knuckles of his right hand and yanked it up.     This was the absolute, final resort. He had never done this before. Nor had anyone else, in all the history of deep-ocean exploration.     There was a hard lurch and a loud metallic snap, and then he was thrown back against his seat as the crew sphere detached itself from the sub. (Continues...) Copyright (c) 2000 Allen M. Steele. All rights reserved.