SEALAB IV

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“All right, Davis. We’ve got a fix on your position and vitals. Everything looks nominal. Confirm comms.”

“Solid copy, Base. Moving to the northeast to investigate the sensor outage.”

“Keep an eye on your internal readings. Base out.”

It was an unnecessary reminder. All our personnel knew the story of Berry Cannon, the diver who had asphyxiated on his own carbon dioxide because someone had forgotten to refill his baralyme cannister aboard SEALAB III. A grim reminder that we could count human error—or even sabotage—among the many natural threats in this alien world.

(Image created by Marie Ginga using Firefly.)

I turned my gaze from the instruments panel, watching as the light rig illuminating the aquanaut faded into the murky black. All that remained after another moment was a few solitary bubbles from his propulsion pack starting their seven-hundred-meter ascent to the surface. Up to where day and night still had meaning beyond the clocks and arbitrary schedules that dictated our lives aboard SEALAB IV.

Speaking of clocks, two minutes had elapsed. All Davis’s readings had stayed in the “green zone,” but one could never be too careful in this environment where it was too easy to lose all sense of orientation.

It’s easy to take the orienting effect of gravity for granted. Instead, imagine you’re now free floating and surrounded by darkness on all sides: no light from the surface, no ocean floor, no landmarks of any kind.

Of course, experienced divers know the bubbles from your respirator will never lie. But it’s all too easy to lose yourself and panic with the constant awareness of the thousands of pounds of frigid water pressing down.

Fortunately, the suits provided to SEALAB IV’s aquanauts had all sorts of redundancies and equipment to hold the relentless pressure at bay and ensure the operator always knew where they were. In these Antarctic waters, they even included heating coils.

Still, even specialized deep-water equipment had a proclivity for malfunctioning at these depths.

Case in point: Davis was on his way to investigate why one of the sensors we had placed at the edge of the Pacific-Antarctic Trench had gone out.

I keyed the microphone in my instrument panel. “Base to Davis. Sitrep.”

After a moment, a voice emerged from the static. “All systems green. Propulsion is good. According to my coordinates, I should have visual on the sensor site in the next 45 seconds.”

“Good copy. Report when you make visual contact and hold position.”

A just perceptible pause followed. “Roger, Base.”

It was an odd request, I knew. But so were Sensor 5J’s readouts in the seconds before it had gone dark. It hadn’t simply gone offline. It had been recording data. Significant data.

Though humanity had spread across the globe, the ocean still remained mostly uncharted. We knew the important pieces like where rocks lay beneath the surface so our commerce could move across the waves. But what happened beneath the surface, especially below two hundred meters where only the bravest ventured, was a relative blank spot. In some ways, we knew more about deep space than our own seas.

SEALAB IV was one endeavor to expand that limited understanding. Specifically, to monitor the Pacific-Antarctic Trench. We had motion sensors and cameras pointed over the lip of the trench, plumbing its black, unyielding chasm.

The motion sensor data traveled back in real time where it was cataloged in the massively powerful central terminal. But the videos, shot in multiple light spectrums beyond visible, were too large of files to transmit back to the command center.

This was part of Davis’s dive mission: to collect the video hard drives. He would also survey the extent of the damage. If it was salvageable, a two-man dive team would be sent to undertake repairs.

Before it flatlined and failed to respond to reboot signals, 5J had showed no signs of malfunction. Its readings remained consistent. Something had ascended from the trench and closed to within meters of the sensor. Its final report showed the anomaly only inches from the sensor. Then it had stopped responding.

If that was all, then I would have written it off as a fish or whale that had run into the sensor by accident. But the anomaly had circled the sensor. Twice. Then it had stopped before moving toward it at great speed. There was an intent to those actions. If it had been a human diver, I would have concluded they were reconning the sensor.

But none of our team had been diving that day, and SEALAB IV was a closely guarded secret in remote seas. Of course, another nation with deep sea capabilities—Russia, China—could be responsible. But why knock out only one sensor? Why not just fire a salvo of torpedoes at the base and kill us in one fell swoop?

This left very few explanations.

“Base, this is Davis.” The crackling voice dragged me back to the present.

“Go ahead, Davis.”

“I’ve got visual on 5J. Not seeing much physical damage. It looks like the entire sensor pod is just gone.”

“Say again, Davis. It’s gone?”

“Affirmative. Looks like it was pulled off the pedestal.”

Maybe it was a Russian or Chinese op? They stole the sensor so they could reproduce their own? But our sensors weren’t anything special.

“Solid copy. Proceed with collecting the video drives and return to base.”

Fortunately, the data drives were stored at the base of the pedestal, so they were not lost when the saboteurs made off with the array.

Still, why would anyone go to all that trouble to steal it?

A new voice tumbled out of the speaker. Not new, I realized. It’s Davis’s voice an octave higher.

“Base, Base. Come in Base!”

“Davis, what’s up?”

“I’m not alone. There’s something moving out here.”

“What is it, Davis? A fish? A whale?”

“I’m not sure, but it’s circling the sensor base. Oh Christ, I think it sees me. Going dark.”

Going dark meant disabling all external lights. It would certainly hide him, but I could only imagine the icy terror of waiting in pitch darkness.

I keyed a new button. “Commander to bridge.”

A moment later, Grayson scrambled through the hatchway, rubbing his eyes. “Kelly, what’s up?”

“Davis is out at 5J. Says something is circling him.”

“Something?” I knew the skeptical look that crossed his face all too well.

“Something that has a seasoned deep-sea diver spooked enough to go dark.”

That got Grayson’s attention. He reached over me and keyed the internal communication system again. “Auxiliary operator to bridge.”

Grayson knew as well as I did that something that seemed remarkably organic and intelligent had circled 5J before it went offline. I could already tell where his mind was going.

“Watch the sensors,” Grayson ordered Tyrone when he appeared a moment later. “We’ve got activity out at 5J, and I want to see if any of the other sensors pick it up.”

I switched back to the dive frequency. “Davis, any updates?”

“Nothing, I think it moved on.” The relief in the diver’s voice made my shoulders relax as well. “Switching on lights.”

Then something strange came over the net. Like a gasp that caught in his throat.

A second later, there was a whoosh, like a great volume of water moving outside Davis’s helmet. Then he screamed.

“It’s got my arm. Oh Christ, it’s got me.”

“Davis, what’s happening? What’s got you?”

“Something massive,” his panicked voice spilled over the microphone. “It’s pulling me away. Away and down. Oh God, I think it’s taking me into the trench.”

A moment later, the dive net squelched and faded. The communication line linking Davis’s helmet mic to the base had severed.

In dive training, we learned that panic was our worst enemy. It provides nothing of value and causes us to freeze up at the most vital moments. Moments where action could make all the difference. Still, it was hard to imagine what exactly I—or any of us—could do in that moment.

“Commander,” I turned slowly in my chair, “what are your orders?”

Grayson and Tyrone looked back at me with pale faces. It wasn’t every day you heard a man screaming his last words over the bridge speakers.

Then Grayson shook his head. “We need to report that Davis had a hostile encounter and is presumed dead. Then we need to figure out what the hell that was and if it’s going to keep this up.”

I nodded, turning to toggle communication with USS Jedediah, the support ship on station to serve as our link to the rest of the world.

But Tyrone’s tapping on his desk drew me away. “Commander,” he gestured to his indicators, “we’ve got activity.”

One by one, the dials for the other sensors fluctuated as the motion sensors tracked disturbances in the water around them.

Then we watched as each flatlined. Red bulbs flickered on to show the connection had been lost.

Grayson would not be left speechless by shock a second time. “Kelly, get on the horn to the Jedediah. Now. Tell them what’s happening and alert them that we may need to perform an emergency evacuation.”

I spun back around, breathing deeply to try and still any shake in my voice. It only partially worked. “Topside, this is Base. Do you read?”

It took a couple seconds for the ship’s crew to respond. It was outside our daily report window. The operator sounded groggy. “Go ahead, Base.”

“One of our divers was lost investigating a sensor outage. He claimed something massive grabbed him before we lost communication. Now all sensors have been knocked out. We may need to perform an emergency evacuation.”

The operator sounded much more alert now. “Base, stand by while I relay to the commanding officer.”

My terminal had a partial view of the porthole in the bridge compartment. As I waited with Grayson peering over my shoulder, I thought I saw something flash past the viewport. A momentary disturbance of the suspended sediment.

Then the speaker crackled and whined.

“We just lost communication with Topside,” I said in a voice far too loud.

“What the hell,” Grayson spat in disbelief. “Are we under attack?”

From the next compartment, there was a crash. We all looked up. Geno, the fourth crew member, was in the mess preparing the evening meal.

Grayson turned to Tyrone. “Check it out.” He spun back. “Kelly, see what you can do about reestablishing comms.”

I nodded, toggling through the standard diagnostics checklist. All signs indicated that the comms line running between SEALAB IV and Jedediah had been cut.

Tyrone cried out, and then something hit the floor.

Grayson and I both looked at each other for a moment before springing into action. On the white deck of the mess room, Tyrone lay on his back, pointing a quivering finger at the wall. Toward the starboard-side viewport.

When I moved to get a better angle, I found Geno practically pressing his face to the glass.

“Move it, Geno.” I shouldered him aside before looking out. “Oh, God…”

A pair of golden eyes peered back from the darkness. In the ambient light from the viewport, I could see a round black head with a dark navy stripe trailing along its back. Pectoral fins jutted from either side, and its snake-like body continued into the murk.

It was like an eel, but larger than any eel on record.

Its head bobbed as it floated beside SEALAB IV, revealing the tips of needle-like teeth as the light reflected off them. I had no doubt this thing could breach the station at any moment. Once the seal broke, water would burst through at the speed of a freight train, crushing us long before we had a chance to drown.

I tensed my shoulders, but the thing kept its distance. Watching.

In all this time, Geno hadn’t moved from the spot I had nudged him to. Then he crumpled against the bulkhead and started to weep.

Grayson grabbed his shoulders. “Hey, snap out of it. This is no time to lose our heads.”

Geno spoke through his hands. “You don’t understand, Commander. It spoke to me.”

Grayson took a step back. “What? There’s a goddamn bulkhead between us and it. How would you hear it even if it could speak?”

“No…” Geno looked up. “With its eyes.”

I looked from Geno to Tyrone to Grayson, then turned to our watcher. Its golden eyes seemed to brighten the longer I looked directly at them. There was something beautiful about this pure light surviving so deep in the dark.

The hum of the air recyclers around me faded away, and my vision narrowed—or had it expanded? Either way, only the gold remained.

At once I saw it, not as an aggressor, but as a life form. Its species’ constant struggle for survival in this cold, crushing world became my own. They had not survived without learning, and they made sure a predator could never pull the same trick twice. It had been generations since they had encountered a new life form, and it had come to see us. To know us.

We are not a threat, I tried to explain through my own thoughts.

Its own thoughts revealed a certain level of skepticism at that notion. In this world, you were either the eater or the eaten.

We don’t belong down here. We do not hunt here. We only seek knowledge.

The giant eel wriggled its head. More skepticism, and now a hint of anger at my treachery.

Then let us leave, and we shall not return.

The longer we had connected, the more its thoughts seemed to morph to words. Our words. As if it was learning. You wish to study. You will study us. And we will study you.

But we are not meant to stay here. We will run out of food.

You need not worry about that.

Then the eel broke eye contact and swirled away into the murk.

Only after the gold tinges had receded from my eyes did I notice the hand jostling my shoulder. “Kelly? Kelly!”

I turned to Grayson, but when I tried to speak, only visions that could not be converted to our words filled my throat. As if the watcher and I had traded languages.

Then Geno grabbed my ankle from where he crouched on the floor. “It told you, didn’t it?” he hissed, his eyes still mottled with tears.

Grayson looked between us. “Does somebody want to tell me what the hell is going on here?”

“They…” I muttered, finally remembering how to speak. “They don’t want to hurt—”

A thump came from the dive room before I could finish my sentence.

“You two stay here and get your wits back.” Grayson yanked Tyrone up from the floor. “Come on, we’re going to see what that was.”

Grayson undogged the hatch, and Tyrone moved through the opening after a moment’s hesitation.

Disobeying orders, I followed them. With each footfall, I felt more certain of what I would find. The watcher had shown me what it intended. It would start with a gift.

The first sign was the stench. Even before I knelt to move through the hatch, a copper scent tinted the air. In the dive room, I looked from the pool where the blue-black ocean began to the dive lockers where Grayson and Tyrone staggered with pale faces.

Between them and the dive pool, a crimson mass lay on the corrugated metal. Rib bones protruded from the top. Only one thing had that anatomy. Only one thing could be that fresh.

Still, I moved closer.

“Kelly, don’t.” I heard Grayson wretch behind me. “Don’t look at it,” he spluttered.

But my pulse was calm as I moved past the sternum and protruding rib cage. At the top of the mass, a scrap of cloth remained. I picked it up.

It was a name patch. Davis, Greg.

“They don’t want to hurt us.” I repeated.

“What the fuck are you talking about?” Grayson regained some of his old color. “Do you see whose body that is?”

“It’s not a threat.” I let go of the blood-soaked cloth. “It’s food.”

Grayson’s face drained again, and Tyrone let loose a glob of yellow vomit.

“They want to keep us.”

***

TOP SECRET

After Action Report: USS Savannah

After contact with USS Jedediah, immediately sortied to investigate communications outage. Came within sonar range of SEALAB IV after three-day voyage. Initial scans showed the base was intact, but also returned several anomalies surrounding the station. Contacts appeared to be biological.

Closed to within visual range of the station. Station appeared undamaged. Previous contacts could no longer be picked up on sonar.

Dispatched deep-sea divers for closer inspection. Divers reported that one crewmember could be observed aboard. When individual failed to respond to hand signals, divers made entry.

Divers found the remains of five other crewmen aboard. All appear to have been killed in the previous week. One body showed signs of consumption. When surviving crewmember was located on the bridge, divers reported she would only repeat “They told me to.”

After survivor was restrained, inserted into pressure suit, and escorted to Savannah, identification was made: Rivers, Kelly, Lieutenant, United States Navy. She is currently detained aboard.

Initial interviews lead me to conclude Rivers suffered a psychotic break from the constant strain and pressure imbalance which led to her murdering her fellow crewmen. A full psychological evaluation by qualified personnel is recommended.

We are proceeding to San Diego Naval Hospital. Jedediah remains on station to oversee salvage operations and recover the crew’s remains

Benjamin J. Nolte,

Lieutenant Commander, USS Savannah

 

This story previously appeared in Vocal Media, 2022.
Edited by Marie Ginga.

 

Stephen A. Roddewig is an award-winning storyteller from Virginia (USA). When not writing, he enjoys collecting records and running races.