The submersible sank at a slow pace. The thin upper layer of sunlit water quickly gave way to darker water below.
“C’mon, Marty, let the lights on!” Samantha pleaded the Alvin pilot.
“It’s not typical to leave the external lights on during the descent,” he replied, in standard textbook fashion.
“That’s just it!” Nick, the other passenger and Sam’s fellow scientist, cried. “Very few have ever seen what exists throughout the water column.”
Marty looked down at the two biologists. Their eyes were wide and eager, like kids in a candy store. With any luck, this would be one of two rides in Alvin they’d get this year.
“External lights on.”
They stared out the glass bubble in front of them. At first, all the lights showed was an enormous expanse of clean, pale blue water.
Then they came.
A myriad of gelatinous creatures tried to shoot out of the pathway of the submersible's headlights. There were hundreds of them. Gasps of delight came involuntarily from the scientists.
Then there was a sparkle of light, and before either could point it out, Alvin was completely surrounded by a fireworks show of bioluminescent jellies and salps. Rainbow colors ran patterns through their clear, membranous bodies which, on land, would lose their elegance and slop on the beach like a clear wet sock.
The lights were turned off after ten or fifteen minutes; the entire descent would take an hour, so of course they couldn’t be left on the whole time. The outside world remained in darkness until Alvin alighted on the ocean floor.
“We have a visual.”
The rest of the team was looking over Alvin’s video feed of the abyssal plain on a ship above the surface.
Dr. Hardy, the head of the project, spoke into the radio. “We have past reports of blacksmokers within a 20-mile radius. Let’s take a look.”
“Copy that,” Marty replied, exploring the abyssal plains before them. Sam and Nick were already busy jotting notes. A hydrothermal vent was certainly inevitable; how else could this barren field support so many different crabs and clams on the silty ocean floor?
“A sea spider – a sea spider!” Sam almost shouted. “Did you see it?”
“How couldn’t I?” Nick replied. It was sixty centimeters across and seemed entirely composed of thin red sticks.
Back on the ship, Alec, the geologist, was watching the seismic activity feed. He looked at the map that Alvin’s geo-sensor continuously added detail to.
“Blacksmokers ahead,” Marty’s voice cracked over the radio. Sam and Nick were enthralled in the world of supernatural animals – two-and-a-half meter tube worms, their red lips sticking out of long pale columns, giant clams, various small eels, even the sporadic ghost-white octopus.
“Dr. Hardy,” Alec interrupted his conversation with the supervising technician.
“Just a minute,” Hardy replied, continuing his discussion. They were considering the coordinates of the hydrothermal vents in relation to other known locations in the region.
“Dr. Hardy,” he repeated more firmly. The doctor looked up, his eyebrows raised, as though surprised.
“I’m getting some very strong tectonic activity down there.” Alec spoke slowly and intentionally. “I think there’s a volcano. It’s about to go off.”
There was a startled pause. “That’s impossible,” the technician, Amy, replied. “We’re nowhere near a fault, or any known hotspot, for that matter.”
“I don’t care. Something is about to happen. Something very soon.”
“How soon?” Hardy asked.
“I’m a geologist. How am I supposed to know?”
Amy looked over the maps they had reviewed before the descent. “How could we not have known this?”
“We know more about what the dark side of the moon looks like than we do of the ocean floor,” Alec replied. “But they need to get out of there – now.”
Hardy snatched the remote.
“Mr. Cooper, can you give me a 360 view? I need to know if you see any volcanic structures down there.”
“No volcanoes yet. Making a 360 now,” Marty replied. A moment passed, then he continued. “There is a volcano – or volcano-like formation – in sight.”
“I didn’t realize they’d be so close to the smokers,” Sam mused.
Before the ship’s team could reply, there was a deafening explosion and a current that hit them like a freight train.
Then all was silent and black.
Sam awoke completely disoriented and achingly numb. A throbbing head told her she must have hit it on something. As she started remembering her circumstances, the dread sunk into her stomach until she thought she would be sick.
She shifted to a sitting position and felt something soft. Recognizing it as Nick’s arm, she reached down to his wrist and felt for a pulse. The blood flowed softly beneath the ice-cold skin. The realization that she was not the only human being in the depths of the earth sent a warm shot of energy to her heart, and she began to breathe somewhat more easily.
The air seemed thin. She knew it carried enough oxygen for seventy-two hours, and she couldn’t possibly have been unconscious for more than half of that. Still, not knowing was enough to set her on edge. There was no point in looking around; there was absolutely no light, and the darkness was impenetrable. What to do next?
“Is anyone down there? Marty? Nick? Sam? Hello?” The radio broke the silence, but only briefly. The suddenness sent a painful shot of nerves down her limbs like a bullet, tensing her muscles as though she was awakening from a bad dream that ended with a ten-story fall. As they relaxed, her fingers tingled with mild pain.
“I’m here!” She shouted. Her voice seemed to be snuffed out by the velvety blackness.
“Talk to me, talk . . . say something,” she shouted again. Sam knew they couldn’t hear her, but her desperation was making her frantic. How could she find the remote without a voice to follow?
What must have been an hour passed. Then a sudden, uncertain, “Hello?” broke out.
The nerves shot her limbs again, and as her fingers tensed involuntarily she lurched towards the noise. She found the steps to the pilot’s platform and crawled up.
Her hands went out around her wildly, but she felt nothing. She moved tentatively forward, then slapped the back of her knuckles against a chair. She reached up to find Marty’s shoulder and pulled it down.
After finding a pulse, she climbed into his chair and sat. The radio was somewhere in front of this seat, she thought, but so were, she knew, a million other buttons she was terrified to press.
“Say something,” she whispered hoarsely. “Oh God, make them say something.”
“This is Robert Hardy. Please confirm your position.”
It was plenty of time for her fingers to find the sound’s source. Had the human voice always sounded so musical? She pressed the button to speak into the remote.
“This is Samantha Bates. The others are unconscious, but alright.”
She couldn’t hear the cheers that erupted on the boat. They had been waiting and trying to get to them for the past twenty-six hours. “Copy that.”
Already, Sam felt the air thicken and freshen. The voices coming through on the radio pierced through the deafening, impossible silence, and the dim red light that flicked on as she talked back broke the suffocating blackness. She used it to, at her professor’s general direction, find a light switch that blinded her with its complete bath of fluorescent beams.
“Alright, I’m on,” she told them. Even the high-powered external lights stretched out into the abyssal plain.
Beyond Alvin, the place looked like a bombed city. Ash covered piles of obliterarated, gutted invertebrates of species unknown to man only fifty years before. The deep-sea biologist in her wished to stay and take notes, but she knew she was not yet safe – nor were her fellow passengers now sleeping.
“How much time do I have?”
“You’ve been down twenty-nine hours. Alvin has plenty of extra resources. But in case of emergency, conserve wherever possible.”
Sam turned off the lights over the viewer’s platform where Nick slept, then reluctantly switched off the external beams. Alvin was wrapped in darkness.
“Alright Sam, you ready to be an Alvin pilot?” Amy’s voice now dominated the background chatter from the ship’s radio.
“Yes ma’am,” Sam replied. Her nerves had stopped piercing her long ago, though her muscles still ached everywhere from the adrenaline. She stared at the buttons, rotating knobs, and levers before her.
“You should see two levers directly in front of you – a large black one and a smaller red one. Move the black one straight forward – slowly,” Amy directed.
Sam touched it carefully, then pressed it forward with her palm. Alvin shifted, jolted, then stopped.
“It’s not moving. I think it’s stuck,” Sam told them.
“Ok. You’re probably covered with sediment – underwater landslide debris, or something like that. Use the red lever – side-to-side motion – to shake it off.”
At first Alvin refused to move at all, but gradually, Sam started hearing rocks and sludge slide off. It seemed as if the entire rear metal portion was covered, and only the glass bubble peaked out from a pile of debris.
She tried the black lever again. Alvin rose with her hand. A thin, fluttery laugh escaped her, and the stone in her stomach suddenly released.
“I’m heading up!” She told them.
“Yes, we can see! Good work. The glowing yellow button beside your lever will put Alvin in autopilot, essentially. You can relax on your way up.”
Sam sat back in the chair and let out a long breath. Marty and Nick looked just fine. She let her head droop from nerve-induced exhaustion and drifted off.
Just a few minutes passed before Alvin was jolted again. Sam sprung up with a start.
“What was that?” Hardy demanded over the radio.
“I – I don’t know,” Sam replied, bewildered. Suddenly Alvin was being shaken the way an impish child would a soda can.
She flicked the external lights on to see an enormous tentacle leap off the glass in surprise and disapear. The jolting stopped.
“It must have been a squid or something,” Sam told them.
An odd breathy sound escaped distantly. She looked around for the source.
“Sam, it looks like your oxygen source is going down. Whatever that was, it must have punctured the spare oxygen tanks.”
“Is it filling with water? Are we sinking?” She demanded.
“What? No – it’s all internal, or, it should be.”
Sam’s eyebrows leapt up, but Dr. Hardy continued.
“You’re just losing oxygen faster than expected. Try to conserve.
Sam threw her hands up and squeezed the radio in her hands. “How do you expect me to do that?!”
“Stay calm. Don’t breathe too heavily, or anything like that. Just – calm. You’re almost halfway up, and we’re tracking your coordinates. When you hit the surface, we’ll take over. So don’t worry. Just – relax.”
It wasn’t five minutes before Sam didn’t have a choice. She could already feel herself slipping again into the unconscious.
The ship’s crew unlocked Alvin’s to portal and climbed in, then carried out three unconscious passengers. Sam was not so deeply out, however, to not notice the rocking motion of the ocean’s surface. When she reached the ship’s deck, she was fully awake, and they sat her on the bench along the stern.
Sam watched as they took Nick and Marty to the nurse’s quarters. She accepted an oxygen mask and took a few breaths herself.
“They’re going to be fine.” Alec sat next to her once the commotion was over. “They’re already awake, just a routine check-up.”
Sam set the oxygen mask down. She had had enough.
“You must be exhausted. Do you want to rest in your room?”
She stared. It seemed awful of him to suggest she spend more time alone, and in the cramped space of her closet of a room.
“I’m fine.” She paused. “Actually, I’m famished. Has lunch been served yet?” They began to walk with the others. Soon she would be dining on the most delicious old, insipid gruel she had ever had in her life.