06 Nov The Ocean Is Much Deeper Than We Thought
“The Ocean Is Much Deeper Than We Thought”Written by Richard Saxon Edited by Craig Groshek Thumbnail Art by Craig Groshek Narrated by N/A
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⏰ ESTIMATED READING TIME — 33 minutes
06“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-appetizing 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 demeanor 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 ocean, and my job was to either 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 favor of 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 hypnotized 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 the 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 mesmerized 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, and 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 Sector 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 center, each lit up by different colors, making sectors A, B, and C. There was something else lit up by the station’s light. At first, just obscured figures leaving shadows in the sand, but as we got closer I realized 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, and 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 Sector 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?”
“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 led us into the central dome. In contrast to the hallways, it was a pleasant surprise: a large living space filled with furniture and personal effects. 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 the 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, 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 reprimanded his colleague, 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 the 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 Sector B.
Unlike the hallways we had traversed before, these were large and well-lit. 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 this, there was a mounted camera on my shoulder that provided a closer view, displayed on a monitor on the opposite side.
Just by the control panel, Mike lay dead, wearing a massive black suit, looking more like a robotic piece of machinery than diving 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 a sheet, with thin streaks of blood pouring from every visible orifice. His eyes were red from conjunctival bleeding, completely ridding them of 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 its 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 matte-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 color-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, allowing thousands of massive worms to pour out onto the floor. They immediately crawled in every direction, up the walls, and onto the ceiling, desperately searching for a means of escape. 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 on the ground.
“Get me the fuck out of here!” I demanded, knowing full 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 floor, he stopped in his tracks.
After a minute of catching my breath, I regained some of my composure. With a morbid sense of humor, 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 realized 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.
“The real reason why we’re stationed down here.”
* * * * * *
Death can be a beautiful thing, beyond all the stigma associated with 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, and Henry was given 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 fish carcasses, not the most welcoming introduction 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 traveling vast distances, or instrumental interference, but then we saw how it affected the wildlife 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, of 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, and unaffected by mass-extinction events. They have evolved quite differently from the 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 that 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 she and I first met.
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 concerned 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.
In the scene before us, 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 seemingly endless 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 affected 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 from so close up!”
“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 its 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 navigate the area more easily.
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 the entire bed was covered in previously undiscovered life. Millions of fungus-like plants covered the floor, and transparent fat shrimp swam between, apparently feeding off of 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 something 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 to make stupid quips.”
“Has anyone ever told you how much better life can be if you at least try to enjoy it? Stop being such a killjoy, Henry. 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 into the ocean was a much slower process, giving him time to think about what sort of fate awaited him. As he sank 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 him to rapid pressure changes exceeding sixteen thousand PSI, but before he could even react, he hit the ground hard.
Mike fell silent, rendered unconscious from the impact.
Depth Unknown: 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 past that point would be after the coms went down, and we all patiently awaited news 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 he wait for rescue in these situations, we could hear garbled sounds emanating 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 the EPM suit, lighting up the cave as far as it stretched.
Mike stared at the shiny walls for a moment, allowing his vision to adjust to the light. They had seemed smooth at an angle, but when light was pointed directly at them, it uncovered bizarre patterns, 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 altered.
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 and 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 shellless spider crabs, dipping their limbs into the worms, merging temporarily while seeming to feed them, for with 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 hadn’t succumbed, as if the worms themselves kept it alive, with a sort of involuntary life support, repurposed for their own needs.
The calf’s half-eaten jaw gaped open, so mangled that Mike could see its vocal cords clearly. They were also covered in 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, and he tried to tear the worms off, but they were far faster than him, trapped as he was 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-colored mass, muffling any audio save for Mike’s panicked breathing.
He screamed as a loud bang almost broke the speakers: the sound of his suit being perforated, and of the mesh refilling the hole we had found on the sole of his feet. The creatures had gotten inside his suit and had begun digging into his flesh. Mike cried 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 peeling off as the view showed that Mike had returned to the elevator. During the three days down in the trench, the syncytium had occupied Mike’s suit, covering it with their fleshy appendages. And yet Mike was controlling it, or whatever remained of him inside the suit, that is.
He wandered towards the station, flakes of syncytial flesh sloughing off of him with 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. 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 nearly 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 checked all of the security feeds, sending out drones to scout for the Syncytium at the elevator.
“Captain, the coms are completely down. I 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 the fish littering 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, and the alarm sounded again.
“Hull breach: Sector B.”
“Fuck, fuck, fuck! What now?!” Henry asked.
Robert stood still in shock, frozen in indecision at the thought of having to choose between saving the station or fleeing.
“We have to evacuate,” was all he could say.
* * * * * *
Most of my old crew, after leaving the Navy, struggled to get over their longing for the ocean. Such was the case for my submarine Captain, Louis Johnson. He always claimed the sea would be his final resting place, where he truly belonged, and following his honorable discharge, he went straight into hyperbaric pipeline welding.
It’s a dangerous job, where the only enemy is invisible, always stalking each dive, each new mission, a foe that can’t be sensed, but with the ability to destroy everything you are in a split second: Pressure.
“Maybe I’m cursed, unable to live on land with my own people, but at least I’ll die where I belong,” he had said.
Johnson would be lucky enough to forever be united with his one true love, at the site of a burst pipe that took him away, finally making him one with the deep blue.
It’s funny how the brain operates as everything around you is falling to pieces, far beyond your own control. Once there’s nothing left you can do, the mind turns to a place of safety, fond memories from a time long since passed. For me, those memories belonged to my time of service, to my old captain and crew. It wasn’t an easy time, but it was filled with purpose, with my problems solely confined to the ocean.
When Robert yelled at me to get my ass in gear, I finally snapped back to reality.
“Doc, come on, we’ve got to get the hell out of here!” he shouted.
James returned to the central dome alongside Abby. They had heard the alarms but hadn’t the faintest idea about what had occurred during their brief absence.
“Get to Sector A. There are still two transport capsules. Get number zero-five ready for departure and wait for me,” Robert said.
“Cap, what are you going to do?” James asked.
“Jennifer is in lockdown. I’m getting her out.”
“What if the creatures got inside?” Abby asked.
Robert thought for a moment, before handing her a walkie.
“If you don’t hear from me in fifteen, just leave,” he ordered.
The station shook as another hole was torn through one of the sections, my ears popped from the shockwave.
“I’m coming with you,” James said. ”You’re not facing them alone.”
“No, we need you to pilot the transport capsule. If you get hurt, we’re stuck down here.”
It wasn’t a valid excuse. They all knew full well that the submarine was easy enough for any of the crew members to maneuver, but Robert refused to risk any more lives, and would use whatever reason he could come up with.
“That’s an order! Get out of here, now!”
They hesitantly agreed and started leaving.
“I’ll join you then. I know nothing about this station or the sub, but I can at the least assist you should something happen,” I said, knowing he couldn’t come up with any excuse to stop me.
He reluctantly agreed, and together we headed for the labs in Sector C, worrying that Jennifer might be trapped behind the airlock, or worse.
Drowning is a horrible way to die. Once you realize there’s no way to reach the surface, that you are trapped in a cold, dark tomb, your throat simply closes up. No matter how hard you try to inhale, your body simply refuses, even as the agonizing pain of running out of air overpowers your natural instinct to breathe, you simply refuse to give in to the overwhelming desire. It isn’t until the body starts shutting down, and the corners of your vision start to darken, that you reach the breaking point, and your brain decides to pull something in, regardless of whether air is present or not. Suddenly ice cold water flows in through your throat, unstoppably filling your lungs, so desperate for air.
It’s a clumsy, painful way to go, and by the time water has filled each alveolus, most are still conscious, with just enough time to regret their decision to ever enter the ocean.
I thought it funny, as we ran towards the airlock, that at least we wouldn’t drown. Surely the worms would consume us, or the pressure from a collapsing station would instantly crush us.
“How did the hull get breached anyway?” I asked as we got closer.
“It’s supposed to be impossible, but I’m sure it’s those fucking monsters,” Robert said.
The alarm had stopped alerting us about the hull breach, and was now recommending a station-wide evacuation.
“Warning: Hull integrity severely compromised. All crew report to designated docking stations,” it said.
“How much time do we have?”
As we turned the corner at Sector C, we saw Jennifer sitting against the wall on the wrong side of the airlock. It took a moment to realize the horrors of her situation. We saw her legs fused with the flesh of the Syncytium. They had started eating away at her lower body, digging their way through her flesh and rapidly replacing her organs with their own meat.
Despite all this, she remained conscious.
“Jen,” Robert said, the only word he could muster from the shock of what lay in front of our eyes.
She slowly turned her head towards us, with her eyes red from hemorrhaging, as worms had consumed her insides.
“Captain, is that you?” she said weakly, blind from blood filling the inside of her eyes.
“I’m here, Jen.”
“I guess the sample wasn’t dead after all,” she joked, with a hoarse voice as she coughed up what could only be a mixture of blood and lung parenchyma. “Maybe tell the doc to double-check these things in the future.”
“He’s here with me now,” Robert explained. ”I’m so sorry, Jen, but-”
“I know, there’s nothing left to do. I guess this is just it.”
She coughed again, violently spewing out pieces of her lungs and worms.
“Don’t worry, Captain. It’s not your fault that a monster from the abyss crawled its way up to destroy us,” she said, her voice cracking as she writhed in agony.
I looked over at Robert. He looked horrified, but couldn’t take his eyes off her.
“It really hurts. P-please, eject the s-section,” she cried. “I just want it to be over.”
Robert nodded, forgetting that she couldn’t see him.
I went over to the control panel. It was fairly easy to use, especially after having witnessed Henry mess with it before. All I needed was the passcode. I thought it wouldn’t be right to let Robert essentially execute her himself.
“I’ll do it,” I assured them.
“Rob,” Jennifer said.
“Don’t let these fuckers get to the surface, promise me that much.”
Her abdomen started bulging out. She screamed in pain as the worms started tearing open her stomach.
“Captain, the code?” I asked.
He told me the numbers, and I input them without hesitation. Years of watching people suffer a prolonged death, knowing that we could do nothing but pointlessly extend their lives, had desensitized me to pulling the plug.
Immediately hatches opened up on the walls, and an alarm sounded as water started pouring in. Since the hull had already been partially breached, however, they quickly collapsed in on themselves. Within a few seconds, Jennifer had died.
“Let’s get out of here,” Robert said.
We ran back towards the central area. We had to traverse the entire station to get towards Sector A. It was the only remaining escape, but as we got to the offices, we could hear something moving within the walls, knocking their way through the pipes.
“The pumps!” Robert yelled. ”They’re getting in through the fucking pumps!”
Talos’ pumps were ancient machinery compared to the rest of the station. As the dome was inserted, they needed to move tons of water outside against the immense pressure, but after finishing the station, they had long since been forgotten, left inside the walls while they installed more permanent solutions.
Before we could react, the walls broke open, and the Syncytium poured itself through the holes, taking the shape of malformed flesh, extending rapidly alongside the walls.
We were cut off from our escape, with only the office available as a temporary refuge from the oncoming swarm of worms and flow of flesh, but our safe haven would quickly become nothing more than another prison to extend our survival.
“It won’t hold them for long,” Robert said.
Robert went straight for his desk, pulling out a pistol from the top drawer.
“You brought a gun to the bottom of the ocean?” I asked.
“You didn’t?” he shot back. ”Never know when you might have to quell a mutiny,” he laughed nervously.
He could tell I wasn’t amused. We both knew a gun wouldn’t slow them down significantly, but any help was welcome. He continued to rummage through the closets in the room, eventually pulling out two unused hazmat suits, just like the one I had used while inspecting Mike.”
“It kept you safe inside the airlock. The worms couldn’t penetrate the suit, right?” Robert asked with pleading eyes.
“Look, they breached the EPM suit, made of fucking metal. I don’t think these will make a big difference. Might slow ‘em down, but that’s it,” I said.
“It’s our best shot.”
The worms had started to pile up on the door, forming a contracting mesh, slightly cracking the glass.
“It’s now or never. James better have the damn sub ready to go,” Robert said as we got into the suits. He fired a shot, not at the door, but at the tempered glass wall beside it, shattering it to a million cubical pieces as we jumped through.
I stumbled to the ground, a few worms getting onto my hand as I stood back up. Robert pulled them off me and shoved me forward. We sprinted for the entrance to Sector A.
We were far faster than the worms, but they had formed a mesh covering most of the ceiling, and with each step we took, more of them dropped down on top of us.
Another hole in the wall burst open directly above the airlock towards Sector A, causing another lump of meat to land in front of the door.
“Shit!” Robert yelled as he instinctively pulled his weapon and fired at the mass on the floor.
I froze in place as the worms disintegrated from the bullets’ impact, reformed, and steadily advanced in our direction. I tried to turn away and run, but I didn’t react in time.
To my surprise, the worms completely ignored my presence and headed straight for Robert, pouring onto him from all directions, pulling him to the ground. He screamed in agony as they formed around his limbs, making him unable to fight back. I hurried towards him and tried to pull them off, but for each worm I removed, a hundred others joined in.
Within seconds they managed to tear a hole at the armpit region of his suit. They immediately wriggled themselves in through the hole. I tried desperately to pull him up, but he shoved me away as he realized there wasn’t any hope left for him.
“Get out of here, Doc,” he gargled as blood started to fill his lungs.
I didn’t even hesitate. Shamefully, I ran for my life while the Syncytium was too distracted by consuming Robert. No matter what I had done, he was already dead.
The hallways narrowed drastically as I once more returned to Sector A. I frantically tried to input the code to close the airlocks. It took me two attempts with shaky fingers to get the correct code, but within a second the doors sealed, and I was once more separated from the abomination on the other side.
“I’m so sorry, Robert,” I whispered to myself.
The central dome finally gave in under the pressure, massive streams of water quickly collapsing the ceiling. The station fell apart, and the central power was annihilated under the flood.
Plunged into darkness and silence, I ventured further towards the docking station. While each section of Talos supposedly had their own backup generator, for some reason it hadn’t been activated yet in that section, making it hard to navigate through the narrow labyrinth of hallways.
“Can anybody hear me?” I called, my voice echoing endlessly.
I bumped my head as I saw a light appearing in the distance. James came running towards me, holding a flashlight.
“Doc, you’re still with us, thank God!” he said, his joy quickly fleeting as he realized I had come alone.
“What happened? Where are Jen and the Captain?”
I just shook my head in response. No words could convey what had happened in the dome, and their absence was proof enough of the unfortunate outcome of our futile escape attempt.
“No time to worry about that now! We need to get out of here! The capsule is just about ready to leave for the surface. We only need Henry to figure out how to get the power back.”
When we arrived at the docking station, I was relieved by the increase in ceiling height, if only ever so slightly. Henry was busy at work on the control panel, trying to figure out what had cut the power from the backup generator. Abby stood behind him with a flashlight.
“Goddammit!” he yelled. “Something has torn away the backup generator! I’m not sure how, but I’m sure I know what! Fucking abyssal demon spawn!”
“Between the lack of power and the damaged hull, the sub can’t release from the station. Essentially, we’re stranded here.”
None of us spoke a word, trapped in a tin can twenty thousand feet below the surface with no transport.
After what felt like an eternity, Henry finally broke the silence.
“Those are all great ideas, but they won’t work,” he said sarcastically in response to our lack of solutions.
“Well, do you have any ideas then, genius?” Abby asked.
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
He walked into the capsule and started messing around with the electronics, eventually pulling off one of the panels.
“There are three batteries powering this sub, and the way I see it, I could take one out, and it should still have enough power to get you all to the surface.”
“Us?” James asked.
“I need to connect this battery to the airlock,” he continued as he pulled one of them out from the capsule. “Then I’ll override the door. It’ll blow open from the pressure, and the resulting wave of water should forcefully eject the sub.”
“What about you?” Abby asked.
“Well, someone has to stay behind to follow through on this plan.”
“Let me do it then,” James interjected.
“No, you idiot! One wrong connection and the door fries, locking forever. I’m the only one with the expertise.”
“There has to be another way.”
“There isn’t, trust me.”
James and I looked at each other, both wanting to speak up, but neither able to come up with an alternative solution. Henry went back into the transport capsule and sealed the panels shut again.
“I wish you were all smarter. Maybe one of you could have stayed behind,” he said as sarcastically as ever, but for the first time with the slightest smirk on his face.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Yeah, well, time for you to go,” he said as he shut the door to the capsule.
We watched as Henry walked away for the last time, ready to face his fate, an asshole to the bitter end, but one with a kind heart. Like his other perished crewmates, he would forever remain at the ocean basin, never again witnessing sunlight.
Time went on forever while we waited for a wave of water that might just as likely crush us in an instant. But with a ton of luck, we’d be ejected out from the station, and from there we could reach the surface. It would be the most violent takeoff in the station’s history, but also the last.
Minutes later, we heard the sound of the airlock opening, just before it shattered to pieces under the immense pressure of exploding water and Syncytial flesh.
It only took about ten seconds for the wave to hit us, and we shot out from Talos, the hallway behind us falling apart as we did. It hit us hard and roughed us up a bit, but we survived.
James took control of the vessel, and didn’t hesitate to start ascending towards the surface.
Abby and I stared out the tiny window. On the other side we could see the utterly crushed remains of Talos, dimly illuminated by the light still powered up by the generators at Sector C, which had been completely engulfed by the flesh of the Syncytium.
The thousands of corpses of fish that previously littered the ocean floor had been cleaned up, and were now a part of the ever-growing monster from the abyss.
A wave of relief washed over me, with my heart calming down for each foot of our ascension. I no longer felt the need to constantly look out the window, the world outside was dark, and whatever life once remained down there had been consumed alongside my longing for the ocean.
Once we reached a depth of five thousand feet, in the middle of the midnight zone, we managed to establish contact with the USS Orion, and called for an emergency evacuation. They were quite the distance away, but by the time we’d reach the surface, they would pick us up, albeit curious as to what had happened in the depths.
At three thousand feet the first rays of daylight greeted us with the warmth of the sun, and the ocean started filling up with peaceful life. At that depth, fish thrived in the waters, completely ignorant to the horrors that existed directly below them. The vast darkness turned to a calming blue, and for the first time since being hired for this mission, I felt safe.
Before long we breached the surface, and were greeted by a team wearing hazmat suits as we boarded the ship. We had been unable to alert them to the situation. All they knew was that a potential contagion existed in the depths, one we could have brought back with us, so understandably they locked us up in the sickbay, isolated from the rest of the crew.
For seventy-two hours they pricked and prodded at us, taking multiple blood samples, and even a CSF-probe. After they all returned normal, and no sign of sickness was apparent, they let us into more comfortable living arrangements as we set a course for the shore.
After being released from the sickbay, I hardly saw James and Abby. They spent most of their time in their rooms, only coming out for the occasional interrogation. Headquarters were incredibly curious as to how a state of the art installation suddenly collapsed, as we had absolutely no proof of the events that had transpired.
They needed someone to blame, but as a part of the CDC, and not the original Talos crew, I was safe from prosecution.
All that was required of me was that I sign a non-disclosure agreement, one I’m breaking now to warn you about the horrors of the abyss.
We know more about what exists in outer space than we do about life in our own oceans, and that’s how it should remain forever.
These creatures, the Syncytium, can’t be killed. As long as one single cell remains, it would be enough to restart their hives, and I fear that with the consumption of Talos, they have learned about life on the surface.
Now that I’m posting this, I’m heading for the Centers for Disease Control. I can feel the worms wriggling inside my chest as I type this, ready to burst out at any moment. I guess the suit didn’t protect me after all.
I hope James and Abby are safe, and that they get a second chance at living a happy life.
I’m so sorry for all of this.
I’m so sorry… for what’s to come.
🎧 Available Audio Adaptations: None Available
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