01 Feb The Ocean Is Much Deeper Than We Thought Part 2
Death can be a beautiful thing, beyond all the stigma associated around the event. It’s the beginning of a world that starts directly from the end of another. When a whale dies in extreme depths, they sink towards the ocean floor, where entire ecosystems arise from their decomposing bodies; This is called a Whale Fall.
Mike’s EPM suit had left behind three days worth of footage; Henry was put on the task of preparing it for viewing. While we couldn’t save him, nor the suit, we could at least figure out how Mike died.
As we waited, the captain decided it was time for me to learn the truth about their mission, and why no one on the surface had ever heard about the scientific wonder that was Talos.
“You saw all the dead sea creatures littering the ocean floor around the station?” Robert asked.
I recalled the hundreds of mangled bodies of fish, not the most welcoming sight to the abyss.
“James told me something compelled them to dive down here, some sort of sound?”
Robert nodded as he pulled up a computer. After a moment of fumbling he clicked on a sound file.
“About five years ago we recorded this coming from the depths of the Tonga Trench.”
It was an oddly synthetic sound, like a whale’s mating call had been pitched down and jumbled around, and in the midst of it all there was something that sounded like a whisper.
“They recorded something similar around the Mariana Trench, and called it the Biotwang,” Robert said.
The sound played on loop as we talked, oddly eerie for something so innocent.
“We first thought it came from a whale, just a bit distorted after travelling vast distances, or instrumental interference, but then we saw how it affected the wild life in the region. Blooms of jellyfish appearing out of nowhere, and fish defying all instincts to dive towards crushing pressure.”
“What made the sound then?” I asked.
Robert pulled up some pictures on the screen, creatures similar to roundworms, but pitch black. They looked nothing like what I had just witnessed in the airlock however.
“From what we can tell, there’s a thus far completely undiscovered ecosystem somewhere down the trench. Isolated for millions of years, unaffected by mass-extinction events; They have evolved quite differently from life we see on the surface. It’s like millions of single celled organisms working together to form more complex creatures, but unlike ourselves, the cells can detach and rejoin at will. We’ve named it: The Syncytium.”
“That’s what killed Mike?”
“They could be part of it, but what we just saw in the airlock is far larger than the microorganisms we gathered here.”
Before we could continue, James interrupted, letting us know the footage was ready to be viewed.
“If they ever decide to declassify the existence of this station, they’ll never mention the creatures, nor the sound that alerted us to their presence. I’m sure one day, they’ll hail this all as a supreme, technological advancement, but truth be told, the reason why the navy put billions and billions of dollars into this project, so that humanity could traverse the ocean floor, is simply because they want to find whatever is making that sound, and find a way of using it.”
“Cap, they’re waiting for us,” James said.
We gathered in the central area. Abby sat in the back some distance away from everyone else. She seemed even worse for wear than before, frail, as if she’d lost weight in the past couple of hours since meeting her.
Henry controlled the footage, ready to speed through to the important bits, as the descent itself was quite slow.
20,000 feet: The Hadal Zone…
Everything we saw would be from Mike’s point of view. The footage started at the airlock, Abby standing before him with a concern expression on her face.
“Don’t worry, I’ll be back before you know it. It’s not like it’s my first time in the depths. It’s not like they’d waste a billion dollars on me dying anyway.”
She didn’t seem consoled by his words.
“This time is different, we haven’t tested the suit beyond thirty thousand feet yet,” Abby said.
“No, but we’ve tested pressure, the suit should be able to go much further before breaking.”
Henry forwarded the footage…
Mike stood directly at the edge of the Tonga Trench, to his left a platform extended even further down towards the Hadal Zone, an elevator sat at the platform’s center.
A short distance down the trench he saw endlessly long tendrils gently swaying with the current. They belonged to the body of a malformed creature, looking like it couldn’t possibly control its long appendages, yet it seemed unfazed by the depths.
“Guys, are you seeing this?” he said excitedly as he pointed at the bizarre being. “It’s a Magnapinna Squid!”
He almost jogged along the edge to get a better view. The suit audibly exhausted by the effort.
“Don’t put too much strain on the suit,” Henry interjected over the radio.
“It’ll be fine, what else did they pay for?” Mike asked.
As he got closer to the squid, another popped up behind it, one with even longer appendages. “Damn, I never thought I’d see one up so close.”
“Stop messing around, and get on the elevator,” Henry demanded.
“Fine, let’s not enjoy our jobs then,” Mike responded.
He boarded the elevator and strapped himself in. The journey would take him another fifteen thousand feet into the abyss. It was a loud, sturdy piece of machinery able to withstand the immense pressure of the dreaded hadal zone, Mike himself would control the speed of the descent, only handing over control to Henry should something happen.
Not long after the descent started, Mike stalled the elevator.
“The suit is making weird noises,” he said.
“That’s normal, it’s adjusting to the pressure change, we told you that it would happen the deeper you got,” Henry explained with an annoyed tone.
“Yeah, I know, but-“
“You’ll be fine.”
Once more, Mike stopped the elevator, directing his gaze at an edge sticking out from the cliffside. On it lay the corpse of a bowhead whale, almost half a planet away from it’s natural habitat.
The whale had been partially hollowed out, riddled with deep sea eels and tiny, eyeless fish, an entire ecosystem thriving from its death.
“How did that whale get here?” Mike asked.
“It died, like all the other creatures down here,” Henry said.
“Yeah, but it’s a bowhead, at least I think it is, don’t they live around the arctic?”
Henry sighed, “just continue the descent.”
35,433 feet: Horizon Deep…
The elevator reached the bottom of the trench after about an hour, allowing Mike to finally unbuckle himself from his seat. He grabbed a box of beacons to allow the next person to easier navigate the area.
After stepping off the platform, and getting away from its bright lights, it became abundantly clear that the bottom of the ocean was far from empty, and that entire bed was covered in previously undiscovered life; Millions of fungal like plants covering the floor, and transparent fat shrimps swimming between, apparently feeding off them.
On the cliff wall itself, thousands of bioluminescent plants extended, just a stalk with a blue bulb bending in the direction of Mike’s movement. It was hauntingly beautiful, looking as alien as anything from another planet.
He continued along the cliffside, putting down a beacon every hundred feet or so.
“I half expected this place to be horrible,” Mike said. “You know, being named after the God of the underworld and all.”
No one responded to his comment.
“Guys, you can still hear me, right?”
“Yes, Mike, we can hear you,” Henry said. “We’re here to work, not make stupid quips.”
“Has anyone ever told you how much better life can be if you at least try to enjoy it? Henry, stop being such a killjoy, we’re making history down here.”
Henry didn’t respond.
“How about you hand Abby the radio? Hell, I’d rather listen to the Captain ramble about protocol, going on and on-”
Mike stopped dead in his tracks, reaching the end of the cliff. Before him was a steep fall, leading down to an endless chasm of darkness.
“Henry, are you sure the elevator took me all the way down the trench?” he asked as he stared into the abyss.
“Yes, you’re at thirty-five thousand feet.”
“Well, it’s just that I’m standing at the edge of the cliff, and this is clearly not the bottom of the ocean.”
“That’s impossible, we surveyed the entire area with sonar.”
“Well, I’m telling you-“
The ground beneath Mike crumbled to pieces, he slid off the edge of the cliff and dove further into the deep. The darkness now surrounding him was absolute, nothing could possibly help him orient himself as he fell.
To fall in the ocean was a much slower process, giving him time to think what kind of fate awaited him as he sunk to depths never before known by mankind, he called out for his crew members, while desperately clawing at the cliff, but even with the suit, he was unable to slow his descent.
As he got deeper, the suit started emitting loud beeps, alarms to alert to rapid pressure changes exceeding sixteen thousand psi, but before he could even react, he hit the ground hard.
Mike fell silent, passed out from the impact.
??,??? feet: The Void…
Minutes after landing at unknown depths, Mike awoke to the sound of his suit beeping. The suit had held its ground, and was starting to adjust to the new pressure. The manometer has broken, and with his tracking device malfunctioning we could only try to guess how far he’d fallen.
Mike grunted as he got to his feet, taking some time to figure out what had happened.
“Henry, you there?” he finally said.
Apart from a few malfunctioning instruments, most of the suit seemed intact, yet no contact could be made with the base. Everything passed that point would be after the coms went down, and we all patiently awaited to learn of Mike’s fate.
Despite having fallen far beyond what we believed to be the ocean floor, he had just landed on another plateau, with an endless distance still progressing downwards, the abyss was ever present, taunting us with its emptiness.
“Please respond,” he begged, defeated.
He activated the beacons still attached to him, and checked his surroundings. He had landed directly in front of a cave leading inside the cliff wall, and moving steeply upwards. While protocol strictly dictated to wait for rescue in these situations, we could hear gargled sound emitting from the cave. Whatever it was, it compelled Mike decided to check out the cave.
The walls inside were perfectly smooth, an impossible formation of rocks reflecting the bright light shining from EPM suit, lighting up the cave as far as it stretched.
Mike stared at the shiny walls for a moment, adjusting the light. They had seemed smooth at an angle, but when light was pointed directly at them, it uncovered bizarre patterns, like symbols not corresponding to any known language.
While he studied the symbols, a loud sound shook through the cave, almost sweeping Mike off his feet. It sounded similar to the Biotwang, but with slight differences, the rhythm was changed.
It seemed to put Mike further into a trance, and he diligently followed the source, ignoring any chance of rescue the further in he went.
The cave led to a much larger cavern, extending beyond the reach of any light source he had available. Unlike the tunnel, these walls weren’t smooth, but were covered in millions of tiny holes, each perfectly round, each identical to the last.
Upon closer inspection, the holes weren’t empty, but filled with worms, just like the ones we’d seen spew out of his body inside the airlock. They wriggled and reached for Mike as he walked through the cavern, pulled towards the sound in the distance, getting louder with each passing step.
The deeper he got, the less he seemed distracted by the holes, which were growing in size alongside the worms. Mike’s only hypnotic objective was to reach the sound.
On top of the worms, spindly, long legged creatures walked across. They looked like shell-less spider crabs, dipping their limbs into the worms, merging temporarily while seeming to feed them, for each dip into the holes, their limbs grew shorter, while the worms expanded.
Eventually he reached a corner of the cavern, and with it, the source of the sound. It was a half consumed whale calf attached to the wall, bound by hundreds of massive worms extending into its torn flesh. Despite being half eaten, and broken beyond any chance at life, it somehow didn’t succumb, as if the worms themselves kept it alive, involuntary life support, repurposed for their own needs.
The calf gaped open it’s half eaten jaw, so mangled Mike could see straight in to its vocal cords, which were also covered in the worms, tugging and moving them into position. The whale screamed, emitting another jumbled sound that pulled Mike even closer.
While Mike was distracted, several worms had emerged from their holes, rapidly swarming around him. Within seconds, they had joined together, wrapping around his legs, and climbing up the suit. It temporarily brought Mike back to sanity, as he tried to tear the worms off, but they were far faster than him, trapped inside a slow, metal box.
He stumbled to the ground, allowing more worms, and their spindles to cover each of his limbs. The creatures merged together, forming a sheet of flesh that soon covered the entirety of his body.
Mike fell silent, and the camera showed nothing but a flesh coloured mass, muffling any audio save for Mike’s panicked breath.
He screamed as a loud bang almost broke the speakers. The sound of his suit being perforated and the mesh refilling the hole we had found on the sole of his feet. The creatures had gotten inside his suit, digging into his flesh, Mike crying in agony before falling silent.
We all stood speechless in front of the monitor, now displaying nothing but a timer, proving the camera was still running, Abby had left, with James following to console her.
“That can’t be it,” Robert said.
“Let me forward it,” Henry said, half whispering in shock.
We forwarded through almost three days of nothing, while the worms incubated inside Mike, trapped alone in the cavern, no one knowing where he was.
The camera started clearing up, the flesh sheet pealing off as the view showed that Mike had returned to the elevator. During the three days down in the trench, the syncytium had occupied, covering it with their fleshy appendages. Mike was controlling it, or whatever remained of him inside the suit.
He wandered towards the station, flakes of syncytial flesh falling off him for each step. His crew called out for him over the radio now that they could reach him, but Mike could do nothing but gargle as worms had consumed most of his lungs.
At the airlock he stumbled inside, ready to unleash hell within the station, but for a brief moment Mike managed to halt his himself, perhaps the thought of hurting those he loved was enough for him to temporarily gain control, just enough time to shut down the airlock, putting himself into lockdown.
Mike collapsed to the ground, he had died days ago, but his will remained even as he turned into nothing more than a vessel for the horrors he now carried within him.
The footage ended…
We stood in silence for a moment. None of us daring to speak a word about Mike’s cause of death, I hardly believed it, despite having almost fallen victim to the same fate.
“Henry, call headquarters, tell them we’re shutting this project down,” Robert said, breaking the silence. “Jennifer, destroy the sample from the airlock, it’s still sealed, right?”
Jennifer nodded, before heading towards the lab.
“We need to make sure that whatever this is, it stays in the abyss.”
I joined Henry as he attempted to call headquarters, the radio returning nothing more than jumbled static. Robert was checking all security feed, sending out drones to scavenge for the Syncytium at the elevator.
“Captain, the coms are completely down, can’t get any signal.”
On the security feed we saw that the flesh of the Syncytium had stretched along the ground, covering some of the corpses of fish that littered the ocean floor. It was impossibly large, using the elevator and platform as a scaffold for climbing up towards the station.
A loud metallic clang sounded through the station, followed by an alarm.
“What the hell was that?” I asked.
“Hull breach: sector C,” an automated voice said.
“Isolate it!” Robert demanded.
“Just do it!” he continued.
Henry frantically tried to navigate the security system, attempting to get an idea as to the extent of the damage.
“What’s in sector C?” I asked.
“It’s the lab. Fucking hell, I hope Jennifer didn’t get there yet.” Henry said.
While the station sealed, trapping anyone inside another loud bang shook us, the alarm sounded again.
“Hull breach: Sector B.”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck, what now?” Henry asked.
Robert stood still in shock, frozen by the decision of saving the station or fleeing.
“We have to evacuate,” was all he could say.