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Below the thunders of the upper deep,
far far beneath in the abysmal sea,
his ancient, dreamless, uninvaded sleep
the Kraken sleepeth.
Alfred Lord Tennyson (1830)
Stahl turned away from the humming machines, looked through a porthole at the black water beyond. Sweat beaded his brow and neck despite the chill, but moisture formed pearls on most surfaces, its embrace unwelcome in the already cold air within the cramped submersible.
‘So that, out there, isn’t Dickens?’ The stains on his t-shirt spread an unpleasant Rorschach blot across his back.
From the restricted space of his mission seat Doc Prothero tapped a screen, displaying read-outs associated with Suit Bravo-Two. ‘Not according to the medical telemetry. Bio-signs are all wrong. If it were Dickens he’d be dead.’
‘Something’s wearing his Suit?’
‘The Suit’s still functional, yes; still sending data. But it isn’t Dickens.’
Stahl leant against the bulkhead, eyes tightly closed. He expelled a slow, deliberately even breath. ‘Could it be the same thing that attacked the pool or destroyed the Tractor?’
‘I don’t think so. But that’s only a gut feeling, not a scientific conclusion.’ Prothero paused in thought. ‘The organism we saw in the pool was akin to Archetuthis or Mesonychoteuthis, the Tractor was lost to several Octopoda-like creatures. Neither would have the precise locomotive control to operate Dickens’ suit.’ The doctor paused again. ‘Though Octopoda are, basically, hydraulic systems, so, theoretically they could move the suit around if they were able to work co-operatively. Which seems very unlikely. I’m not a specialist in marine biology. That was Dickens’ area.’ Detail – precise, unequivocal – was Doc’s retreat from fear; to understand something took away that unknown element which could sap a persons’ mental and physical strength.
Resting on its ventral jacks the red bulk of the Manta sat just above the mud of the ocean floor. Clamshell doors remained sealed over the Tractor pool and, as far as the sensors indicated, the outer lock remained secure. The submarine sat in silence, just the whisper of the air processors cycling the atmosphere; the faint thumps and creaks of water pressure on the double hull.
The surviving four crewmen congregated in the cramped confines of the Ops pressure hull, eyes constantly scanning information relayed from the sensors on the outer hull and the live feeds from the remote cameras. The most disturbing view remained the sight of Suit Bravo-Two standing beneath the Tractor lock.
In a second, cramped seat Gethman continued monitoring the comms system, hoping for the interference to abate even slightly; offering the vague possibility of punching through a mayday to The Matilda, the surface support vessel that should be holding station above. Prothero sat quietly at his workstation, reviewing the bio-signs broadcast from the portable monitoring devices worn by each member of the team. Aside from the men within the Manta, the only other data were the spurious readings from Bravo-Two. Alpha-One hadn’t provided any data for over an hour, but then Akerfeldt presumably perished when the Tractor had been attacked.
Whatever their motivations the creatures possessed patience.
It was over an hour later that Gethman noticed the squid had reappeared, gliding out of the half-gloom, multiple limbs extended. Alerted, the other crew members watched the milk-white cephalopod traverse several of the camera views covering the vessel’s port side. It halted beside the secondary ventral airlock, its tentacles moving sinuously across the outer hull and into the locks’ recessed housing, arms caressing the curved shell of the submersible.
Stahl and Jameson scrambled into the port crawlspace and listened to the sounds of the creature’s investigations; faint ticks and scratching as the serrated rings of chitin in each sucker briefly adhered to the Manta’s metallic skin.
‘You think it’s trying to get in?’ Head pressed against a cold bulkhead Jameson turned wide eyes to Stahl.
‘Guess so; can’t see they’d be any other reason.’ Stahl checked the locking mechanism of the hatch set in the deck between them. It led down into a diving chamber, an airlock space just big enough for a single occupant when dressed in a bulky dive suit. ‘Can’t see how the squid’ll be able to open the chamber. Manual control’s behind a panel. Even if it does find it, it’d have trouble working the handle.’
Both men waited in silence, trying to gauge the creature’s activity from the faint noises that reached them. Trying to keep his breathing steady, Stahl leant his forehead against the inner, pressure hull, imagining the movements of the white tentacles and arms across the titanium alloy submarine. With effort he reassured himself that there was no immediate danger. Being trapped in a confined space on the ocean floor wasn’t a comfortable situation, but as a seasoned submariner Stahl could handle the claustrophobia. It was the circumstances of their confinement that were unnerving.
The exploration dive had been proceeding to plan, the Manta sailing serenely ten metres above a featureless plain of sparsely populated benthic mud just to the east of the Mid-Cayman Ridge. The ROV had been directed to investigate a confusing sonar return when it lost power and went silent. Akerfeldt, nominated mission commander, radioed the support vessel to report the incident, then directed Stahl to take the Manta closer to the ROV’s last indicated position. With their depth reading at just over 6,200 metres, Akerfeldt didn’t want divers operating too far from the relative safety of the submarine if that became necessary. Unhappy with the contradictory readings from both the backscatter and forward-facing sonar, Stahl had been reducing their velocity when the Manta collided with something; a structure with zero sonar return. Collision alarms wailing, forward observation blister compromised, Stahl had performed an emergency blow on all the dorsal ballast tanks.
Cracks scrawling across the central and lower methacrylate viewports, Akerfedlt had propelled himself unceremoniously through the connecting pressure-lock into the control sphere, flailing hands dragging the pressure-door into place. The Manta had shaken furiously as the observation blister imploded under the pressure of over 6,000 atmospheres.
Rising sluggishly and barely under control the Manta had impacted on something projecting above the vessel and an avalanche of debris forced the submarine back toward the sea bed. In desperation Stahl had activated the ventral jacks, in vain hope it would keep the Manta from being pressed into the mud and the lower thrusters buried. It surprised both Stahl and Akerfeldt when the jacks sank only a metre into the muddy surface and the submarine remained almost upright. They could function with a 20° list to either side, but their final resting position was canted to starboard by less than 6°.
All evidence indicated a solid, almost perfectly level surface just beneath the covering of silt.
With practised efficiency the crew assessed their vessel – the observation blister was destroyed; the two port-side manipulators were out of commission, controlling hydraulics inoperable; those to starboard were pinned beneath pieces of odd, glass-like rubble. The starboard list wouldn’t compromise the integrity of the Manta when the Tractor detached – the smaller, manned work vehicle was carried attached to the underside of the larger vessel, its clamped position forming a secure air-seal. With the Tractor launched, the pool could either be left open to allow divers easier access or secured by clamshell doors to prevent ingress of water if there were any pressure problems.
Rapidly, efficiently, Akerfedlt and Stahl had prepped and launched the Tractor with the intention of clearing the debris and recovering the ROV, which had once again begun to broadcast, though on a much-reduced bandwidth. The image appeared to be another section of the glass-like material, marred by indistinct markings. Dickens and Jameson had exited, one at a time, via the diving chamber, and immediately reported a visual distortion to the structures encircling the Manta. Neither man could clearly focus on the odd forms surrounding them; both distance and dimension were impossible to quantify. Prothero was initially concerned over mental impairment due to a breathing-gas imbalance; suit sensors said otherwise.
Having successfully launched through the restricted space beneath the Manta, Akerfeldt had been trying to negotiate around the larger submarine when out of the dark water a giant, pale squid appeared, arms and tentacles extend. It wrapped itself around the Tractor and held it, despite Akerfeldt’s best efforts, as a swarm of smaller cephalopods, octopus and squid, enveloped it. Close by the Manta, Jameson immediately climbed into the divers’ airlock, screaming for Dickens to head back. In the confusion of shouted warnings and panicked screams, Dickens had been slow to react. Having wandered over to a piece of the debris it took him precious seconds to turn and in bouncing, loping strides, approach the Manta. Both Stahl and Prothero agreed that Dickens was excitedly talking about there being writing on the fragments he’d examined. He then passed under the curved hull, hand reaching for the boarding ladder, and a multitude of metre-long octopus engulfed him. Within seconds the signals from his suit had stopped. Being partially beneath the hull he’d moved into a blind-spot and the crew were unable to see what was occurring; only the swirling mass of octopus could be glimpsed in the peripheral view from the diving lock camera, accompanied by frenzied shrieks that cut off abruptly.
It had been several minutes later that Suit Bravo-Two had once again appeared on a camera view, to stand sentinel, where it had remained as the long hours counted slowly past.
Signals from Akerfeldt’s diving suit had become wildly erratic then ceased as the squid’s massive arms prised-open the Tractor’s hatch, releasing a brief torrent of air bubbles, the octopus sliding, one-after-another through the expanding gap. Stahl could remember handing Akerfeldt his helmet as he slid into the Tractor, but couldn’t recall the latter securing it as Stahl had shut the hatch.
Now the Tractor lay somewhere out in the darkness, wherever the squid had discarded it before returning and heading directly for the open Tractor pool. At warnings from both Prothero and Jameson, Stahl had activated the clamshell doors, repeatedly hitting the close button as the sea creatures’ tentacles rose from the foaming water, questing across the deckplates toward him. When the hydraulics began to judder at the resistance, the cephalopod drew itself back out through the narrowing opening. The clamshell doors sealed with a thump of displaced air. The scraping on the hull had lasted for an eternity as Stahl squatted, pressed against the hull trying to control his breathing.
It had been Prothero who shut down both the exterior floodlights and interior work lights to preserve battery-life. Unable to contact The Matilda, they had no idea how long they could be trapped. Even at full power the floodlights penetrated at most ten metres into the gloom; the illumination striking the vitreous material threw back distorted umbrae, which tricked the eyes into seeing constant movement.
Without the lights the black water vanished and the Manta was immersed in a ghostly luminescence, emanating from the lustrous, rock-like structures that surrounded them. In the faint glow the squid was a half-seen presence, its continuing investigation of the submarine’s hatches a near-constant background noise; scratching, scuffing.
Staring out into the deep water, all four had remained pressed to portholes for some considerable time, mesmerised by the odd visual distortion and the slow waves of light that seemed to pulse through the arrangement.
Lost in contemplation of the folds and angles of the strange formations, Prothero realised that it was the voids between the taller outcroppings that put him in mind of a city. The more he considered the absurd concept the more he could visualise the silhouettes as sweeping domes, upthrust spires, cathedral-like constructions supported by buttresses of shaped rock. What people could inhabit such a strange city? What manner of civilisation would birth a city beneath the sea? Who would choose to live in such a discordant half-light?
It was Stahl’s returning sense of self-preservation that made him check the status of the submarine. Remaining life support would function for up to eight hours with the four survivors. Though they’d lost only a small percentage of their oxygen, without the main drive running the lithium ion batteries would run-down to their shut-off levels. Then the heaters and re-circulation system would cease to function. That gave them a countdown clock and restored some primal motivation.
Jameson established himself next to Prothero, monitoring communications, which produced nothing but an oscillating static howl. Squeezed into a gap between O2 tanks and the pilot seat, Gethman sat rocking gently and mumbling quietly to himself; refusing to make eye contact when called by name and chewing continuously on already shredded fingernails. With the control sphere cramped, Stahl kept to the rear of the craft, crawling from one porthole to the next, trying to see what was happening in the waters around them.
He was first to notice the various forms of sea life gathering. Then, through the milling throng of cephalopod and fish, Stahl saw the humanoid figures approach.
It was hard to judge their colour in the feeble illumination that suffused the water, though their bellies were much paler than their backs; the slight sheen on their dark skin suggested scales. Humanoid yes, but with shoulders rounding into ichthyic heads that carried round bulging eyes and a wide lipless mouth; the whole bearded by delicate, quivering gills.
They walked upon the muddy seabed, spatulate, webbed feet raising small puffs of silt; some moved on all fours, some upright. Now disconcertingly visible they stopped, crowding together, all staring with unblinking eyes toward the Manta.
Stahl dragged in a raw, shuddering breath, heart hammering his ribs, pulse loud in his head. He’d tried to convince himself that the ghost-like squid and aggressive octopus were just denizens of the deeper waters not previously encountered. These people of the deep couldn’t be so easily rationalised. And what were they waiting for?
In broken and halting speech, gesticulating wildly, Stahl tried to describe what he’d seen to the other crew. Jameson snatched up a sharp-ended sampling tool and scrambled back to cover the diving lock, as if guarding that one, fragile barrier would hold the oceans’ myriad monsters at bay. Gethman turned himself against the bulkhead, covered his face and went silent.
Still anchored by his belief in science, Prothero turned on the exterior floodlights, as if to view the creatures would be enough to understand them.
At the sudden burst of brighter light the numerous octopus and fish darted away, vanishing into the littoral waters, leaving the monstrous squid and the humanoids to besiege the Manta.
As he scanned the ranks of fish-men, Prothero recognised the hemispherical outline of the helmet that surmounted Akerfeldt’s diving suit standing among the mass of creatures. He glanced at his readouts; medical telemetry mirrored that still being broadcasting from Dickens’ suit.
Crowding Stahl’s mind were images of fish-men, the questing tentacles of some underwater beast, screams of dying crewmen. Pains in his chest made it hard to breathe, but concentrating on that throbbing pain helped clear his head. He was a practical man, a private submariner for nearly ten years. In that time he’d dealt with all manner of emergencies and seen species he never knew existed. This was so far outside anything he’d experienced or could comprehend it threatened to overwhelm him. Grasping at practicalities he dragged his thoughts back to devising a means of escape. Of the other three, Gethman was beyond reaching, Prothero seemed clear-headed and Jameson could be easily directed. Before the situation deteriorated any further, they had to get to the surface.
With the wide-angle view from the dorsal cameras it was immediately obvious they couldn’t extricate the Manta from beneath the debris. Stahl’s plan was straightforward - release the survival pod; the command crew sphere and raised upper hatch structure which housed the forward-facing sonar emitter. Stahl had hopes that this compact sub-division of the submersible would be able to pass the arch that reached over them, even if it scraped the paintwork. Once severed from the rest of the submarine they’d have whatever air was trapped in the sphere, two reserve tanks good for an hour-apiece and their independent suit supplies. It’d have to be enough; from these depths it would take nearly two hours for an unpowered ascent. When the tethering clamps released two emergency buoys would also launch simultaneously, immediately broadcasting location and depth. If the signals reached The Matilda the support crew would know the survival pod was on its way to the surface.
They desperately needed The Matilda. Once on the surface the Manta crew would be stranded in an unpowered craft; all the thrusters were part of the larger submarines’ hull.
The other more serious concern was whether Stahl’s plan would provoke a reaction from the creatures outside. As they’d received no communication from The Matilda in over six hours, it was imperative they try something. Neither the acoustic transmitter nor the radio had received a recognisable signal since the collision.
After a brief but thorough explanation of his intention, Stahl had everyone don their full diving suit and attach the helmet, though they’d only go to independent air supply if something went wrong. Jameson helped Stahl dress Gethman, now almost catatonic and unresponsive when spoken to.
As remote operator, it fell on Jameson to control the remaining independent ROV, with which Stahl was hoping to clear a little of the debris from ventral hull, leaving less to impeded their departure.
Nestled against the Manta’s hull, in a shaped recess beneath the starboard wing, the small, boxy remote possessed the same sample grabs as the machine now lying among the ruins – Prothero’s suggestion that the structures about them were a city had gained favour once the man-like creatures had emerged from the gloomy waters. The ROV didn’t need to lift anything, Jameson only planned on manoeuvring the machine across the hull and using its slight bulk to push against the fragments littered across the Manta.
Accompanied by a faint whirr that sounded within the pressure hull, the ROV detached, thrusters powering it up past the wing, the curve of the Manta further distorted by the wide-angle lens on the machine’s forward-facing camera. Thumbs on the twin joysticks, Jameson’s full concentration fell to directing the ROV’s path, eyes focussed through its viewpoint. He shrieked, an involuntary response, tentacles overwhelming the plexiglass in a mass of writhing white flesh, if the squid had snatched him rather than the machine. In a thud of compacted metal, rubber and glass the tentacles quickly tightened, crushing the ROV. But that sound was quickly followed by a light, near-continuous skittering and scraping, as the squid’s own rapid displacement of water caused a minor pressure wave to roll over the upper hull, dislodging smaller pieces of rubble and sending them sliding off the Manta’s skin.
Recovering quickly, Jameson then launched two tethered side-scan ROVs; fly-by-wire side-scan sonar emitters that, fish-shaped, would normally be deployed to augment the Manta’s own side-scan capabilities when the mission required collection of fine-resolution mapping detail. Emitters set to maximum, the ‘fish’ howled loud enough to cause the Manta to vibrate; their guide lights blinked defiantly at the darkness, each ROV reaching the limits of its tether to jerk crazily as it tried to escape. Commotion clouded the waters beyond the submarine’s viewports.
In unison Stahl and Prothero slammed the matched pod release controls to the ‘open’ position – a series of bangs and thumps and the survival pod quivered, quaked, broke free of its moorings and began to rise. Two further detonations signalled the release of the emergency buoys.
A cacophony of metallic shrieks, the unguided oscillation of the pod, and a cloud of debris slid back toward the ocean’s floor. The pod rose faster, its upward momentum no longer thwarted by the rock that had held it down. The shrill clamour as the pod cleared the remains of the arch was deafening; to the men trapped within the sphere a noise to be welcomed, as the other sounds from the vicinity of the Manta began to recede.
Now they could only hope that The Matilda was still on station; the surviving crew could do nothing to influence their fate.
From within the oppressive confines of his bubble helm, Stahl tried to see out through the porthole nearest, but the ocean was once again black and lightless. The sanctuary of the Manta no longer shone out into the water, the faint glow of the ‘city’ had faded.
Severed from their main battery supply, the electrics within the pod went into emergency mode. With no thrusters to impel their ascent, the survival pod relied upon syntactic foam to rise, the buoyancy of the lighter-than-water material no longer counteracted by the volume of water held in the Manta’s ballast tanks. Trapped in a half-light, listening to the cold waters bubbling and brushing past the pod, each man retreated into himself.
Strapped into a fold-down jump seat, Gethman remained inert, unresponsive to the thumps and rumbles that echoed with the spherical space. Jameson still clutched the sampling tool, but kept his eyes tight shut and mumbled incoherent prayers to himself. Robbed of machines to watch, Doc Prothero had succumbed to inner demons, tears rolling down his cheeks as he sought to rationalise and deny what he’d seen on the ocean’s floor. He shook and flinched at every noise. Of them all, only Stahl remained outwardly calm. He sat quietly, eyes shifting continuously between the two portholes within his field of view, waiting on the reversal of their fortune that would drag them back down into the abyss. Jaws clenched he tired to think only of bright sunlight reflecting from calm waters, the cries of gulls, white clouds in a limitless sky.
Each man inhabited an insignificant piece of a vast, unseeing universe. Submariners all, each no longer understood the oceans in which they’d plied their trade for so many years. Certainties were gone, replaced by lingering fears that corroded sanity and brought forth horrors, to take station in the mind and whisper of abominations. Each man retreated to an imagined place of safety, a mental sanctuary, but even there a gloom had settled.
Even Stahl had begun to despair when, slowly, the water outside the portholes began to brighten, imperceptible at first as the dark ebbed. Stahl sobbed as comprehension dawned - this illumination fell from above, and he knew then that they must be nearing the surface.
As the view grew steadily brighter the pod started to rock, buffeted by surface currents. Then, without fanfare, they broke through and the pod was left rolling and dipping amongst the waves.
Stahl was first to release his seat harness. Bracing himself he unlocked the upper hatch clamps one-by-one, thrusting the hatch open when the last released. Seawater splashed in, accompanied by fresh salt air and sunlight. Relief within the pod was palpable; the silent men stirred to noisy life; even Gethman turned his blank face to the sun’s rays.
The Matilda was several hundred metres away, already heading in their direction. Two inflatable support boats were in the water, bouncing across the low waves in their rapid approach to the survival pod. It looked as if the emergency buoys had done their job.
As the sailor on the first inflatable reached out to snag a line on the nearest anchor point, as crew on The Matilda's aft deck worked to deploy the submersible hoist, the ocean foamed. In numbers uncountable colossal tentacles rose from the waves, to snatch down the inflatables, wrapping themselves about The Matilda and reaching for the mortal remains of the Manta and her crew.
Stahl could only scream.
Dedicated with genuine admiration and deepest apologies to Howard Phillips Lovecraft.
Ironspider - Sorry, that's my limitations as a writer - the stilted dialogue was an attempt to show stress and fear. Obviously not as successful as I'd hoped. Thanks for the comment though. John Henson Webb
The dialog needs a revision. It seems forced.
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