“Dear diary,” even after dozens of video diary entries it still felt awkward to talk to that little circle just above the computer screen, “another great day behind us and, can you smell it? That’s right, coffee!”
The habitat, normally sterile and utilitarian, took on a softer, more homely quality when the lights were turned
down low and the aroma of hot coffee brewing flavored the processed atmosphere.
“Yes I know I know, you shouldn’t drink coffee before bedtime. It’s a funny thing though. After a while down here,
somehow a cup or two of coffee is just right. Makes you sleep like a baby.”
It did. And it didn’t make sense. Neither did spending dayafter day on the bottom of a saline lake. Hypersaline really. The currents that gently rocked the habitat from time to time were thirty-one percent more salty than the ocean. That made it an exceptionally good place for scientific research.
“Let’s see, the lake bed samplings for today were excellent. Great numbers. Right after lunch we...”
The idea of ‘we’ had crept into diary entries lately. There wasn't really a ‘we’ on the bottom of the lake anymore. Yoshi didn’t do anything anymore but rest down in the sub-level. It was probably best for Yoshi to take some time out down there and figure things out. Being so far away from the rest of the world hadn’t been easy on either of us.
“After lunch I,” with a smile and emphasis on the I, “ran the processes, let me see they were the 12301 version A and the beta for the one that ran yesterday. Yoshi’s ok. A little tuckered out these days but ok. Anyway, the process results were sent off before dinner and since I was ahead of schedule for once I took some me time and watched some movies.”
Truth was the schedule was trashed. Most days were spent doing lake bed samples with the remote controlled rover. They all came back the same. Calcium. Sodium Chloride. Areas where sulfurs had or were presently venting from underneath the earth. Once in a while the larvae of shrimp or some other creature came back up in the sludge.
Strange creatures. Low light levels, the extreme pressure found at such a great depth, and the lake’s chemistry itself conspired to alter the geometry of life. Normal life. Rationalelife. There were things out there that defied biological conventions.
“Finally in this week’s installment of is there life out there, this specimen showed up on deck during rover wash down.” Had it been a week since the last installment of that sickly sweet ‘is there life out there’ weekly thing Yoshi once insisted they do together? Yoshi used to say it would help pass the time and that it was better to count by weeks than by days or by months. So what. There were at least two digital displays in every room except the sub-level that showed the date and the time so it wasn’t hard to count up the days. If the clocks were correct. Were they correct?
The specimen itself hadn’t drizzled off the rover when high pressure water and foam cleanser stripped the mineral crust from its plastic and carbon fiber. A wash was supposed to happen every time the rover was lowered into its airlock which in turn was gradually filled with water from outside so the rover could be sent on its mission. Most missions lasted an hour or so which was long enough to encrust the rover in a glistening shell. Who knew what grew inside the rover’s crevices? It hadn’t been washed in days. Maybe weeks.
Or had it? The rover sat on its elevator, encrusted in the lake world’s residue. Caked on hard and thick, so much so that the steering system wasn’t working all that well and one of the camera lenses was completely obscured.
The specimen was one already documented at least once before. In its original form it had probably been some kind of lobster. Beautiful with deep violet streaks along an angular body contained in a dull grey-green outer hide. Intelligent too. While it was living it seemed to be able to detect and react to Yoshi’s presence even though Yoshi was down below in the sub-level. After the creature passed, a kitchen knife fashioned him into something slightly different for the digital diary to chronicle. Just the digital diary though. There was no need to report it topside and upset the biological world with lives that existed only in a bored imagination.
“Well, as they say, that’s all folks,” and with a click the blinking light went out. The computer screen said the file was being saved and the coffee smelled wonderful.
In soft monotone the feminine voice reminded that the habitat's interior temperature was 72 degrees fahrenheit,
22 celcius, and that humidity was below the permissible twenty-five percent threshold. The temperature rarely varied by more than a degree or two. Humidity never changed much either. Even when a long, hot shower allowed steam to drift throughout the voice would dutifully advise that she was reducing water temperature and activating stage two ventilation. The habitat’s insistence upon self preservation made for a very convenient lifestyle sometimes.
At night lighting in the sleeping quarters automatically changed to a gentle blue hue. Quarters were bound by an oval window on one wall and a flat-screen with an ever changing kaleidoscope of color on another. The bunks, cradled in a steel frame and sheet metal, were more functional than aesthetic. But at night they were as comfortable as home. If it was really night. Or day. Or yesterday or tomorrow or both or none.
That’s how it had been growing up back home where the back bedroom on the second floor became a sanctuary when the rest of the world didn’t make sense. Dad with his questions and mom with her silence when the guy at the music store had said he’d sell the guitar, the black one with the wood chipped away on one side, for $100 even. Three chords were what mattered back then. They helped make sense of the blur of days spent not fitting in when fitting in was what mattered most at that age.
“Temperature in the habitat is now 75 degrees fahreheit 24 degrees celcius and humidity is within parameters,” the voice said.
On the top bunk the patterns and shadows overhead played tricks with perception. Had she said 75? Or had that been part of one of those weird dreams that comes when sleep doesn’t want to? Those dreams had bothered Yoshi too.
Yoshi. What a name. It meant ‘good luck’ or ‘righteous’. Those fit Yoshi perfectly. Things were so different now that Yoshi’s bottom bunk was empty. But Yoshi had to go away. It was the right thing to do. The habitat was getting to Yoshi and it was affecting work. Safety. Everything. Just like back home when things got to dad, somebody had to be a man and take care of mom and the house.
“Temperature in the habitat is now 82 degrees farhenheit 28 degrees celcius and humidity is approaching threshold,” the voice’s tone was more stringent this time, “activating stage two ventilation and auxiliary cooling system one.”
“Get a job will ya.” Dad’s tone used to be stringent when he'd shout through the bedroom door. He never knew that even with three chords still ringing in the air his muttering was still audible as he stormed down the stairs. “And toughen up boy...be a man for chrissakes,” dad would say. When he said that it hurt. It hurt because in life we don’t get to choose and we can’t be what we are not, no matter how bad we wish we could for ourselves. For mom.
Anyway, things were fine. Just fine. Do the math. Every day spent underwater was a day without bills all those gigs
at The Nine Lives couldn’t pay off. A day without the outside world getting inside your personal space when all you wanted was for them to leave you alone. Yoshi was like that. Never grasped the concept of personal space. Always getting too close and then feigning offense when called out for it.
Yoshi was better off in the sub-level. That was where the main machinery was. A crawlspace where the walls were covered in thick white insulation and the steel floors were painted lime green. If Yoshi hadn’t wanted to be there? Oh well, we are all victims of our choices in life one way or another aren’t we?
“Temperature in the habitat is now 90 degrees farhenheit 32 degrees celcius and humidity is approaching threshold”, the female voice gave way to a male tone, “recommend shutdown of all non-essential equipment at this time.”
The right thing to do would be to climb down from the top bunk and call the shore station topside. That’s what needed to be done. Call up there and let them know there was a problem. Probably a bad sensor in the environmental monitoring system. A system administrator could login in and remotely reset it, or walk through the steps to replace it with one from the storage module like Yoshi had done one time before. It didn’t feel like 90 degrees. It did feel like the waters around the structure were more turbulent than usual though.
Had a vent opened in the lake bed somewhere close by? That made sense. A rush of hot, sulfur-laden water could be boiling up all around the habitat, causing it to jostle and sway. The primary environmental sensors were in the sub-level so it made sense they would register the increase in temperature there before it was apparent elsewhere. It had happened once before.
A geothermal vent had opened near the habitat a few monthsago. For several days the temperature readings were way off and subterranean currents shook the habitat down to its moorings. Yoshi had gone down into the sub-level to check on the sensor. Then he adjusted some of the hydraulics that helped maintain the structure’s balance. It helped. The thing to do now would be to go down there and check the sensor and the hydraulics. That meant seeing Yoshi. Coming face to face with Yoshi again. Which would be unsettling. Unnerving. And besides, it was late. The hydraulics and the sensor could wait until morning or the next day if the currents didn’t ease up on their own.
There was a sound. A sound inside the habitat. Somewhere downstairs in the main living area. Low. So low it birthed doubt where there should have been hot blooded fear right there in that decrepit little bunk room that had once been perfect but nothing ever is and the closer to perfect it is the harder it falls out of favor.
“Emergency emergency,” the voice said, “structural breach in the sub-level.” Of all the things that could go wrong so far under the surface this was one of the worst.
Out of favor. Yes. That’s what it was as the noise became more evident. Fallen out of favor with the holy or the elements or the ancient spirits or some writhing mass of congealed psyches of the living and the dead and the yet to come. Was that what this was? That had to be what this was and if it was – no it was – what supplications could be offered that would make it go away?
Call in a favor. That sound that noise that unholy dread manifest downstairs in the main living area was undeniably
devouring as it sought to sate its hunger. Who to call? Who would listen? Eric. Bobby. Jennifer. Uncle Stan or Aunt Louise? Fat chance. They would never listen. Not after it all came to a head with dad. Even if they would listen why would the phone to shore give up a dial tone when by now the dread had chewed through the line.
“Casualty condition in the main living area. Casualty condition in the main living area.” The voice begged to be spared from the coming rage. The wrath. “All personnel are advised to take immediate protective measures.”
Crackling crunching popping breathing groaning pulsing and moving towards the stairs. Step by step a little faster each second and why hadn’t the alarms sounded earlier with their call that could’ve made the difference.
Pile things in its path yes anything and everything for heaven’s sake put something in its path because laying there
dead in a bunk bed wasn’t working. Noxious whisps of its fog were already surveilling the sleeping quarters looking for what it wanted and then making sure so that the dread could cough in under and around the door until there was enough of it to slither between lips and into nostrils and into the lungs so that the natural exchange of antiseptic air and real life giving blood could be interrupted.
The dread was unnantural. Of this world and not of this world and neither animal nor spiritual the dread was known by mariners ancient who had been lucky enough for their near misses to become folklore and by Dr. Martin Leggler who had arranged the whole habitat thing. Damn him! Damn Dr. Leggler for that ad he ran in the paper and for saying that it was safe when it was a death trap even if it had procedures in place in case the dread came breathing around the sleeping quarters. And for saying there were ways to abort the whole thing and heave the habitat up out of those toxic depths.
Depths so far gone the world outside was black as night every hour of all those days that blurred together and there was no way to know the hour of any of them anymore because even though the clocks in every room said it was Wednesday December 6th 22:37, prove it! Prove that and the fact that the world outside was the bottom of a vast inland sea never before visited by mankind.
Prove it Doctor Leggler! And prove that the toxic miasma swirling about would fade the second your lackeys pushed the emergency button bringing cranes to life that would haul the habitat out of the depths of hell and into the world of light and life.
Or were recent suspicions on point after all? The whole thing had been a trick. A set up. To send a body into deep
space. So deep the stars never shone. That’s what it was. And the dread was some vile interstellar predator starved for the taste of skin and bones and blood and soul. Or a transgalactic parasite that deigned to inhabit an interesting and unfamiliar species. To multiply itself inside arms and legs and eyes.
The dread was already withholding breath from blood and replacing oxygen with a million chemical poisons. Fight it. Move. Move damn you! Pick up something anything and smash it against the window. The folding chair. Use that! Harder. Harder. Like a man will ya.
This was no way to die. This was no way to die like a man. Movies didn’t let the hero die like this because in movies
heroes are always the favored ones. They are loved and they are adored and when they die on ill-fated expeditions to nowhere they become martyrs people choked back tears over. #OhHowSad.
Tears. Real ones. Blurring up in the eyes and making what was left of this world look like a quivering mess. Boys don’t cry. Boys. Don’t. Cry. Should have said sorry more. Should have said less. Listened more. Been nicer to mom and to Yoshi and everyone else. Damn that window. Why wouldn’t it splinter and crack and go brittle and then give way and even if it was interstellar nothingness out there that was a better fate than enduring the advancing acrid sting already burning skin.
Quivering mess. Shivering sorry quivering mess. So sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Sorry. Crouch down in the corner near the window. Press hard against the wall. So hard the roaring rage of the noise wasn’t just deafening it was reverberating through the wall and into the mortal tendrils that anchored soul to flesh. It had been easy enough to sever what anchored Yoshi’s soul to flesh. That had been the righteous thing to do hadn’t it? Was that how this went for everyone? That concoction of soul and flesh that makes one whole ripped apart when the dread rattling the door in its frame burst into the sleeping quarters.
Falling. The sensation of falling. Geometry shifting as the gravitational pull of some celestial body took hold. Or was the habitat under water after all and Dr. Leggler’s crew with their cranes raised high above the desert steppe had pushed the emergency button and the diesels had surged to life and the wheels had squeaked then squealed
round and round pulling up lengths of steel cable thick as a grown man’s arm and then something went wrong and the habitat was falling back down towards the lake bottom.
Sweat and tears and the door rattling and ready to give way because the dread was out there and the hallway was consumed and gone and the only thing left was the sleeping quarters. This was it. The part they
don’t write about in stories about people that end because they can’t since the dead can’t write stories that tell the living what life’s last moments are like. No, this was no way to die for a man or for anyone else.
Numb. Disoriented. Drooling vomit and mucous. What had been perceptible in the room wasn’t anymore and visions of angels that shouldn’t have been there danced overhead. Grip and heave the chair hard against
the window one last time. Then duck for cover and hold life’s last breath hard inside as the glass splintered and then shattered free of its frame.
“Congratulations candidate twelve,” the voice said, “you managed to achieve 322 days in this particular isolation. That’s a record.” Beyond the opening, the control room was beautifully silent, and the aroma of freshly
brewed coffee smelled wonderful.
The unmistakable sound of a telephone ringing pierced the cold, empty darkness. A pay telephone, slow tumbling end over was ringing. The pay phone at the end of the universe that’s always ringing.