LINK to Part ONE
LINK to Part TWO
Vilhjálmursdóttir and Ibarra were the first to rationalize away this unnaturalness. They were scientists, after all, and if some phenomenon breaks natural laws, then those laws are at fault, not the phenomena. While unprecedented, they claimed, this illumination could easily be the result of an undiscovered microorganism or bioluminescent plankton.
While this explanation assuaged Dr. Ramfield; Rydern, Lukasc, and I remained unconvinced. Those two would lose the most if this mission went disastrously wrong, so they tried to salvage it the hardest. We all heard them in the night, conspiring on how to live their lives together, running away from any bureaucrats or military tribunals. They were in love, and had their whole lives ahead of them, even I wasn’t cruel enough to deny them their hope. Even though I agreed with them at the time, I think that for all its savage absurdity, the truth of the situation was better than their alternative. After all, better for their dreams to die fiery, hot, and passionate than be slowly frozen and chipped away.
We proceeded even further down in the next month, our craft seeming to proceed slower and slower as the days dragged by. Lukasc isn't coming out to eat with us anymore, and Rydern doesn't speak to any of us when he does. They’ve both retreated to their joint quarters, to try and assuage the boredom and ennui through silence and separation.
The event which presented itself most strongly from this period might be the day we reached the Bathyal zone’s halfway point. Ibarra tried to pull out a celebratory drink—pure obligation at this point—when she noticed a very odd fact about the walls surrounding the cabinets. The steel that made them up, and in fact all the steel on the submarine, had gained some strange, malleable property, bending and twisting to our fingers while somehow retaining its strength and structural integrity.
We descended deeper and deeper, each day encountering some strange new property of this deep water. Fish and other creatures numbered less and less, and the days dragged on longer and longer.
Time meant less down here, near the bottom, and while I would rationally believe it was the unchanging light and long work-hours, I knew somewhere deep within me that it was time itself changing, not I.
With a fully unceremonious THUNK the Pandora hit the bottom. None of us could recall exactly how long it had been since we’d set off. A month? Six? Twenty-four? Only by the continuity of our bodies could we tell it had been under five years, but I doubt that our judgement was anywhere near as accurate as we had thought.
We had just travelled further than any craft before us, manned or unmanned. I would say that the Pandora would fall into both those categories—manned and unmanned—because what we saw that day transformed us—we entered the trench with hope, dreams, and optimism, but returned as hollow as our craft. Like a cup placed over a sunken candle, the magnificent and terrible truth of our journey vacuumed up any fibre of soul which we might have possessed into some other, hollow dimension.
We were barely able to move or think now, through the thick sludge the world called water, and so took more than a few minutes to regain out bearings. We finally comprehended it though, minutes after our collective train of thought departed in steam and oil-smoke: we were no longer explorers, we were GODS. We could shape the future for millions to come, bringing back and controlling all the knowledge humanity had of this massive trench. Like Prometheus, we could take fire from the gods—or rather hydrothermal vents. After what seemed like a rapid century, we finally decided what day it was, to celebrate as a holiday both personal and (later) national. Every city would have parades in honor of this glorious mission, and we would be the gods, exalted by the people in the backs of massive cardboards floats. It's telling, though, that for all the minutes we spent in celebration and self-congratulation, it took us even longer to look out the window, and see what we were celebrating.
At first, I thought we had hit some large underground oil deposit—thought us now richer than all the kings of all the oil kingdoms in all the post-colonial backwaters in the world. As you’ve probably noticed by now, I'm a bit slow on the uptake. Esther was the first to notice, I think, she screamed out in horror once it all fit together in her head. I think she bore the worst of it, the truth hit the rest of us with at least some warning at its nature, she had nothing, the full magnitude of her reversed expectations crushed her at that epiphany, without the slightest warning. Heiðrún was next, they always were very similar. She started screaming along with Esther, only a few seconds after, and then sunk down to a fetal squat, clutching at her knees in some vain hope to ground herself through physical sensation. It was Rydern next, the Dr. Ramfield—too busy commenting on the lack of ocean life to ruminate like the rest of us—and then Lukasc. Finally, as I strained my neck back and forth, giving myself literal and figurative whiplash in trying to understand why my whole crew had suddenly gone mad, I found myself gazing down in utter confusion. Confusion only at first, however, because as I was looking down at my hands, staring intently at my palms for lack of any other place to stare, I truly saw, and everything finally clicked together. Outside, inside, all around us, inside us, was not water, oil, or even blood.
It was paint.
Cheap, acrylic, art-store paint, the type my mother bought for me in Kindergarten.
I slowly walked towards the window, which all my crew had turned away from, and for the first time looked down. Everywhere I looked, I saw my own atoms deceiving me—I saw brightly-colored paint. I saw paint in every direction, except for straight down. No, when I looked straight down it got worse.
When I looked straight down, I saw people looking back.
Link to Part ONE
Every night, I could hear the crew talking and laughing in the communal kitchen, thankfully sober due to naval regulations. I had never been a very social person, but recently I've confined myself to my cabin for greater and greater lengths, until I was in it almost every hour I was not commanding the Pandora. My vague sense of disquiet, felt by none of the crew but Dr. Ramfield, had slowly morphed into genuine paranoia at some point in our journey. I could point to no specific instance which alarmed me, no giant tentacle out of the corner of my eye, but in my hindbrain some ancient evolutionary relic from a more dangerous past compelled me to anxiously ruminate in my room, moving to and fro without any real purpose or concentration. My interactions with the others grew increasingly fewer, only chatting briefly with Dr. Ramfield about some new odd crustacean behavior, which on its own he would ignore, but together stitched a quilt as mundane as it was unsettling. His fears fed into mine, their empirical origin justifying my instincts. As I later realized, I regressed into a horrible cabin-monster, tales of which told around the kitchen stove-fire.
It took two weeks to understand my paranoia's disastrous effect on the crew. As the captain, my absence at dinner was acutely noticed, every day my empty chair at the table's head draining more and more spirit from the crew. I was an anti-leech, a life-bringer, and my paranoia had doomed the crew more surely than any real or imagined leviathan. So I decided to return to my crew once every three days, the most I could handle. This way, I thought, my crew would explain away my absence as a natural social apathy, and not—as they were now— as a recession back towards some distant evolutionary past.
On my very first return, I finally understood my calming effect on the crew. I sat down at the table, said one or three responses to smalltalk, lightened and brightened their hearts. At about that time, we finally moved out of the Bathyal Zone, the last zone through which sunlight penetrates. We broke our first kilometer, and celebrated appropriately. But slowly, as if gradually revealed by some serial fiction writer, the source of my unease finally came into focus.The rest of the crew soon began to notice as well, confirming my prophetic intuitions. Dr. Ramfield, ironically, noticed last out of all of them, his myopia serving him no better than blindness.
As the crew looked out the portholes, what was once joy became unease, and what was once wonder became fear. For even though the sheer tonnage of water in the Bathyal Zone crushes any sunlight which penetrates the water, our surroundings were no less illuminated at a thousand meters than they were at five.
For ages, we've more about the space above us than we have about the oceans we rely upon to live. Even the most sun-dried fisherman never ventures more than mere feet beyond their surface, even though he lives beside them, using them, day in day out. There is good reason for this. On that fateful journey I took so many years ago, I discovered that the sea-surface is an infinite blue cloth, concealing a truth so horrible and existentially awful it defies explanation or reason. Nevertheless, this truth is so fundamental to our continued existence that to ignore it would be to climb a trunkless tree, it is so foundation to the human experience that it exists separate from any understandable causes, a pillar, resting on ether, which exists unto itself.
On October 10th, my crew and I set off, down into the depths of Challenger Deep. We meant to explore the ocean's greatest depths, and uncover it's greatest mysteries. My ship—The Pandora—was crewed by eight accomplished professionals, not including me, each either a sailor, doctor, or scientist.
Upon reflection, I mislead by including "doctor" in that category, because The Pandora's crew has only one doctor, by the name of Castile. As a military doctor, her skill is unmatched; she was specially chosen for this mission because of her skill as a combat medic. She is tall, thin, and utterly unflappable; much to the conversation of one particular researcher I'll discuss later on.
Two of the remaining five are soldiers, the tall brawny blond types that look like they were grown in a top-secret bunker vat. Commander Rydern is older, and the most senior of the two, but you could only tell by his scars. He speaks gruffly and rarely, but with a deliberation that attributes his silence to careful intelligence, not ignorance.
I think I heard Rydern and the younger soldier—Lukacs— are related through their mother, but I'm intelligent enough to not ask either one is this is true. Rydern would just blankly stare at me, but Lukacs—built almost identically—would glare and grimace, his face slowly becoming more and more orange until it resembled a diseased tomato, until I became too frightened and left. I imagine Lukacs thought this (infamous) grimace intimidated us, but it really only made him look vaguely constipated. I imagine that he made it this long without being taunted for it because no one had the balls to tell him.
The head researcher was a portly old fellow, but not at all jolly as the label "portly old fellow" would suggest. He was intensely myopic, both in his eyes and judgement, and cruelly dismissed all things not related to his beloved marine biology. I would think he was some sort of ichthyophile or crab fetishist, but the thought of Dr. Ramfield in any sexual light so disgusts me that I would rather become a crab fetishist myself than even consider him as a sexual being. Regardless of my thoughts, the knowledge that no sapient creature possessed judgement flawed enough to find his snappish oceanic pragmatism endearing comforted me on lonely nights. “At least I'm not him”, I thought. By then again, he’ll probably still be living when I'm long-dead, his studies having mutated him into a horrible half-lobster monstrosity, which continually grows larger instead of sagging with age.
The last two crew members are the good doctor’s underlings: Ms. Esther Ibarra and (the eternally unpronounceable) Ms. Heiðrún Sigríður Vilhjálmursdóttir. They were both brilliant marine biologists but also—much more interestingly—involved in a torrid romance, their love breaking past any and all naval regulation or government policy forbidding relationships between colleagues. Because it was incredibly dangerous and secret, naturally, everyone knew the minute they stepped on the ship. They tried their best to hide it, even at one point acting hateful towards each other. It didn’t last, our sly nudges and half-lidded, insinuating gazes at their “arguments” telling more than any words: their ship—no pun intended—had already sailed.
All assembled together, we set off, thinking the sapphire ocean a herald for safe waters. We were optimistic, excited, and totally ignorant of anything to come.