01 Feb The Ocean Is Much Deeper Than We Thought
They told me you were experienced in harsh waters.” James said, as he pointed out the pearls of sweat that had formed on my forehead.
“Yeah, I do.” I replied, moments before hurling the remnants of a less than appetising lunch, off the side of our ship.
”It’s just that you look a bit green around the gills.” He continued with a smirk.
We’d just met a few hours ago. I’d been airlifted to USS Orion, a sealift handling abyssal transport capsules for a classified project conducted by the United States navy.
“I guess they failed to mention that I’m much better underwater, in submarines.” I shot back.
Considering the circumstances, his casual demeanour left an uncomfortable atmosphere among the workers. They all knew what my visit entailed, but just like myself, they were scant with information.
All I knew, was that there might be a contagious infection at the bottom of the the ocean, and my job was to either to disprove it, or to confine the entire crew aboard the station.
As soon as we were positioned securely on top of the Tonga Trench, we were rushed into the transport capsule; A minuscule, vertical submarine, designed simply to take us to the base on the ocean floor, twenty thousand feet below us: Talos.
I entered the sub, feeling excited, while also dreading the return to the deep blue. It had been ten years since serving as a hospital corpsman, one of the few actually stationed aboard a submarine. Over the years I had clearly lost the natural sense I once had for the ocean, yet I longed desperately for it.
“Whenever you’re ready, doc.” One of the crew members said, impatiently waiting to drop us into the abyss.
I raised my thumb. “As ready as I’ll ever be, go ahead.”
10 feet: The Twilight Zone…
The impact with the ocean lightly shook the capsule. As we submerged, my nausea quickly diminished, and a sense of peace washed over my mind.
I was back.
Outside the window a few curious fish accompanied our journey downwards, various sea life attracted by the cargo ship, following to see us off.
James piloted the miniature sub, having done the trip a thousand times before, it wasn’t anything new to him. Myself, I’d never been below two thousand feet, and never had I been able to look through the window and admire the mostly unexplored blue world.
3,300 feet: The Midnight Zone…
As we sank deeper towards the abyss, the last stray rays of sunshine vanished. We had left the realm of sunshine and mankind, all in favour for the domain of darkness.
“First time in the abyss, right?” James asked after a long bout of silence.
“Yeah, served aboard a submarine for a few years, but they never go very deep, this… this is something else.”
He smiled at me. “Well, you’re in for a treat then, we’re going all the way down, Talos sits right at the edge of the trench, ain’t nothing quite like it.”
Any sea life once curious about our sub had long since retreated towards brighter areas. The rapidly increasing pressure had proven hostile to most, but some resilient little creatures had found a way to thrive in places once thought to be lifeless, the miracles of the ocean.
Within an hour we had reached a depth of ten thousand feet. Beyond the fifteen inch glass pane, separating us from certain death, lied nothing but everlasting darkness. For all we knew, the two of us could have been all that existed in that void, if not for the sound of the outer hull settling under the pressure, a constant reminder about the vastness of the ocean.
To distract myself from the unsettling, creaking sound, I asked James about the only thing I could think about.
“Why don’t you tell me more about what happened down there?”
James had acted casual that far, but my question quickly changed his nonchalant expression to a frown. “They briefed you on the surface, didn’t they?”
“Of course, but-“
“Then that’ll have to do.” He said firmly.
13,100 feet: The Abyssal Zone…
The world outside hypnotised me, staring so far into nothing, knowing there could be a full world only a couple of feet before you was bizarre, I’d never experienced true darkness until that day, and to think a good portion of Earth’s life had existed within it for millions of years, terrified me.
When I served aboard USS Catacea, my captain explained why they don’t put windows on submarines. He told stories about shipmates going crazy after years at sea, that the isolation, or distance from the mainland never bothered any of them. He firmly believed that staring into the ocean and pondering its secrets was what truly drove men from their sanity, and to combat this, they never put windows on their vessels. Though it was clearly a tale he made up, seeing what truly lies beyond the surface brought back these memories, maybe he was right after all.
My sinister thoughts were interrupted by a dim light appearing in the distance. A red dot dancing blissfully up and down, getting close to our little sub; It was a jellyfish.
“Would you look at that.” James said as he pointed at the little creature, so fragile, yet defying the deep sea pressure.
Another light joined in, then a few more, and before long a symphony of pulsating, crimson lights formed around our capsule, welcoming us with the warmth of thousands of stars, making up their own little galaxy thousands of feet below the surface.
It was the most magnificent thing I’d ever seen, a bloom of jellyfish happily existing in such hostile conditions. I couldn’t help but feel impressed.
“They’re called Atolla Jellyfish.” James stated. “They don’t usually venture this far down, but there’s something about this place that seems to attract them. I usually see a few on my journeys down here, but never anything like this.”
I just nodded in response, too mesmerised by the sight to notice what he said, but as quickly as they had appeared, they vanished, once more leaving us in absolute darkness.
“Listen, Doc, I’m sorry about the outburst earlier.” James said.
I turned towards him, turning my back to the darkness for the first time. It made me feel vulnerable.
“You gotta understand, this ain’t something we usually deal with, and Mike, well, I’ve known him most of my life.”
“I know how much this sucks, believe me. I’m just trying to get as much info as possible, for all of our sakes.” I said.
“Yeah, well, there’s nothing I could tell you anyway. The airlock has been on lockdown for the past two days, and we’ve been under strict orders not to open it until you deem it safe to do so.”
I didn’t ask any further questions. I’d dealt with contagions ever since leaving the navy, and ninety percent of the time, they were simple overreactions.
19,700 feet: The Ocean Basin…
For the first time since we left the ship, the radio came to life, emitting a static sound, one that slowly took the shape of a man’s voice.
“James, can you hear me?” The voice asked.
“Loud and clear, Captain. I’ve got our man from the CDC with me as well, we’re just about ready to dock.”
“Great, the crew is getting impatient, we-“ The radio started breaking up.
“Ah, damn, the radio is- dock at section A, don’t-“ It shut off completely.
“Welcome to the Abyssal Zone.” James said. “The radio has been acting strange lately, imagine giving us a state of the art station, but coms from last millennium.”
Through the window we could see a massive dome lit up by hundreds of lights. Three paths stretched from its centre, each lit up by different colours, making sectors A, B, and C. There was something else lit up by station’s light. At first just obscured figures leaving shadows in the sand, but as we got closer I realised they were fish. Hundreds, if not thousands of dead sea creatures littering the ocean bed, their corpses mangled from the intense pressure.
“Christ, what the hell is up with the fish?” I asked, horrified.
“Same as the Atolla, something attracts them down here, they swim until their bodies break under the pressure, then they sink.”
“What could possibly do that?”
“There are a few theories, but from what we can tell, it’s a sound that we periodically hear from the trench.”
The docking process in itself took quite some time. The outer hull had changed ever so slightly due to the high pressure, just enough so that fitting into the station proved a challenge.
As the doors finally opened I stumbled outside the capsule, greeted by three of the crew members aboard.
“You’re the doctor, right?” The oldest of them asked.
“That’s correct.” I said as he reached out his hand to introduce himself.
“The name’s Robert Lewis, I’m the captain assigned to Talos.” He said as he shook my hand. “Thank you for coming this far, I know it’s not the most pleasant journey.”
He seemed polite enough, though clearly sleep deprived, with bloodshot eyes and greasy hair.
“This is Jennifer Burke, one of our biologists, and that’s Henry Gale, our technician.” He said.
They both shook my hand, neither making eye contact as they did.
”Hey, Cap, where’s Abby?” James asked.
”Still at section B, she’s not doing too well as I’m sure you can understand.” He responded.
”Let’s talk.” Robert said as he gestured for me to follow.
The hallways were narrow, dimly lit up with lights that flickered, and constant creaking emitting from the walls. It looked disproportionate considering how large it had all seemed from the outside, and as a rather tall guy, I had to crouch down to keep my head from knocking into the ceiling.
“I’m sorry about the grim mood.” Robert said. “It’s the first time we’re dealing with something like this. I’m assuming they told you about the situation, on the surface?” He asked.
“They did, but I have to admit, I’m a bit fuzzy on the details.”
“As are we. Mike put himself in lockdown as soon as he returned to the station, and we haven’t had clearance to open it yet.”
“He, Mike, didn’t give any good reasons?” I asked.
“He never got the chance, he fell over dead the second he hit the button.”
Robert lead us into the central dome, in contrast to the hallways, it was a pleasant surprise; A large living space filled with furniture and personal affects, had I not known better, I could have believed we were still on the surface.
“Mike discovered some microorganisms down in the trench, a new type of parasite he said. He claimed they were able to withstand any amount of pressure, which isn’t a surprise down here, but he also explained that they were completely unaffected by rapid changes in environment.” Robert said as we headed inside an office.
“Did he believe it was contagious?” I asked.
“Seeing as he was our microbiologist, I can’t really come up with another fathomable conclusion. Needless to say we destroyed all the samples, but we still don’t know why he put himself into lockdown.”
“But that’s not the strangest thing.”
I waited patiently for him to continue, while he tried to form words he clearly had trouble believing himself.
“We lost him down in the trench for three entire days, the tracking system failed and the coms went down. We did whatever we could, but it was futile. Even if we had found him, he only had enough oxygen for ten hours, so we unfortunately, we presumed he had died. Then, out of nowhere, his tracker reappeared on our systems, showing that he was moving back up the Tonga Elevator, and though he never responded to any of our attempts at contacting him, he was clearly alive.”
“It’s impossible, yet it happened. Once we let him into the station, he simply locked it down and fell over dead on the ground.”
Before Robert could continue, the technician walked into the office.
“When you examine him, be careful not to damage the EPM suit, it’s highly-“
“This is hardly the time, Henry.” Robert commanded, glaring at him.
“I’m just saying, this is a billion dollar project.”
“Why don’t you go get the equipment for our doctor here?” Robert demanded, getting more agitated by the minute.
“Look, Captain, If you would just let me go into the airlock, I could take all necessary precautions.”
“Absolutely not. Do you think headquarters would have sent the damn CDC if they thought we could handle it? For Christ’s sake, Henry, know your limits.”
The technician left, and quickly returned with a modified hazmat suit and some surgical supplies, we moved on towards section B.
Unlike the hallways we had traversed before, these were large, and well lit up. As we arrived at the airlock, we found Abby standing before the glass door, staring longingly at Mike’s lifeless body.
“Abby.” Robert said.
“I know, I know, it’s time.” She responded as she turned around. “Oh, you’re the doctor?” She asked, her eyes red and voice trembling.
“You’ll figure out what did this to him, won’t you? I just don’t understand.”
“Abby, why don’t you come with me while they work?” Robert said. “You don’t need to see this.”
As Robert led her back to the central dome, Henry started unpacking the cart of medical supplies, including isolation drapes and the hazmat suit.
”Alright, I’m going to guide you through this, no need to mess up a perfectly good EPM suit.” Henry said. “What does EPM mean anyway?” I asked.
“Exoskeletal Pressure Modulator.” Henry said as if it was the most obvious thing in the world.
James, and Jennifer helped me seal the hazmat suit, while Henry hung up the isolation drapes.
I stepped through, while Jennifer entered a code behind me to open the airlock, my ears popped as they sealed the door shut behind me. Both the drapes and airlock were transparent, meaning they could observe everything I did, in addition to a mounted camera on my shoulder for closer view, displayed on a monitor on the other side.
Just by the control panel, Mike lied dead, wearing a massive, black suit, looking more like an robotic piece of machinery, than divers gear.
There were several cables and hooks hanging from the ceiling, and just turning him over was a massive task, as he weighed about half a ton wearing the suit.
His face was pale as sheet, with thin streaks of blood pouring from every available orifice. The eyes were red from conjunctival bleeding, completely ridding them from any white.
”I’m ready.” I said.
“Alright, the first thing you’ll need to do, is to simply inspect the suit. Look for any breaches in the integrity. It shouldn’t be possible, but in the unlikely event that something broke through, a self healing mesh should have formed, it looks kind of gray.”
I looked over every inch of his suit, from top to bottom.
“There, his feet!” Henry yelled.
Sure enough, there was a patch of gray that stood out from the matt black metal covering the rest of him.
“Something actually perforated his suit.” Henry said, surprised.
I got closer, giving them a better view on the monitor.
“Clearly the puncture wasn’t what killed him though.” He added
I had to agree with that assessment, any breach not sealed off within a nanosecond would immediately crush him, but it seemed that the mesh had replaced whatever penetrated the suit at the same time as it was removed.
“Next, attach the cables to his shoulder, they are colour coded, so it should be easy enough.”
I attached the cables as instructed, which caused the suit to light up and start unhinging. The front of the suit opened up, revealing Mike’s completely mangled body.
“What the hell?” James asked.
“That’s not pressure damage.” Henry responded.
Mike’s ribs were broken outwards, though they had not torn apart his flesh, his chest seemed to have expanded to almost twice its normal size.
I continued to remove the helmet, pulling it off his head. I looked into his eyes for a brief moment, baffled as to what could have caused his internal organs to essentially explode. For the briefest of moments, it seemed like his eyes moved to meet my gaze.
“Did you just see that?” I asked.
No one said a word, we all just stared at Mike, waiting for something to happen. His eyes moved again, darting in random directions as he started gargling, violently contracting his chest.
“Oh God, he’s still alive?” Jennifer asked.
He opened his mouth, letting thousands of massive worms pour out onto the floor, they immediately crawled in every direction, up the walls onto the ceiling, desperately searching for a way out. Mike continued to spew out more slimy worms.
His mouth tore open in the process, leaving his jaw completely unhinged before falling off. Once all the worms seemed to have exited his corpse, his chest tore open, revealing even larger worms. It quickly became apparent that all of his organs had been consumed, replaced with the disgusting creatures.
Some of them started clinging to my suit as I swatted at them in panic, none of the others knew what to do, they could only stare at me flailing around.
As the worms touched each other, their flesh temporarily fused, forming longer versions of themselves, growing in size and then breaking off again. They wrapped around my arms and legs, I begged for someone to help me, but what could they do.
“Hang in there!” Henry yelled as he fumbled with the panel for the airlock.
Within seconds, a few small taps emerged from the ceiling, spewing what I could only assume was liquid nitrogen. Whatever it was, the worms froze in place, freezing to the point where I could break them into tiny pieces.
It only took a moment, but all the worms had been killed off, and though my suit had partially protected me from the cold, I collapsed exhausted and shivering onto the ground.
“Get me the fuck out of here.” I demanded, knowing fully well they couldn’t do that until I had dealt with the infestation.
Robert had just returned in time to see what the commotion was about, and upon seeing what remained of Mike lying torn to pieces on the ground he stopped in his tracks.
After a minute of catching my breath I got some sense back. With some morbid sense of humour, and functioning on autopilot, I turned towards Henry.
“Sorry, but the suit isn’t going to be salvaged, we’re ejecting the whole fucking airlock as soon as I get out of here.”
Henry turned to Robert, pleading for him to make me reconsider, despite what we had all just witnessed, but Robert took my side.
After removing the recording unit from the EPM suit, I packed the entire thing into an easily ejectable container, while making sure that no worms remained on my suit. All I took was a small sample of a frozen worm, packed into a vacuum container.
I exited the airlock, and handed the sample over to Jennifer, she had prepared the previous parasites brought back by Mike, and I told her to get everything ready so I could determine what we were dealing with.
Robert started the procedure of ejecting the airlock’s content, including what remained of Mike and the EPM suit, Henry pouting the whole time.
James hadn’t moved an inch since the event. He’d turned sickly pale, as if he just realised the severity of the situation.
“We have to tell him, Captain.” He said quietly after a few minutes.
“Tell me what?” I asked while getting out of the hazmat suit.
Robert took a deep breath, mulling over his options. “You’re right.”
“Tell me what?” I repeated.