The Call of the Abyss
"Did you check the non-return valve?"
"Yes Joe, I checked the valves." Mary looks at me through the open facial port of the diving helmet. Her expression catches me off guard: like a kid waiting for permission to open her presents on christmas morning. It amazes me that she can get so excited, given our dire circumstances. The weight of the dead and missing hangs heavily on all of us, and I envy her ability to forget about it, at least for a moment.
"You really should've waited for me to help with the check. Wing nuts?" Everyone on board had been busy since the incident, and by the time I heard Science Officer Fletcher had gotten the go-ahead for having a look at the ruins outside she'd already managed to wrangle herself into the suit.
"Nuts, check. Studs, check. Straps, lanyards, laces, gaskets, check. I did this a hundred times in training, you know?" Slight exasperation in her voice, but I can sense she's glad I'm here. Training is one thing: walking the bottom of the ocean floor in pitch black darkness is another.
"Helmet and breast plate numbers match?" Her deep sigh tells me all I need to know, so I remove the cotter pin, pop open the latch and lift the dumbbell locking the helmet in place. I twist the helmet and lift it off, revealing Mary's short blonde hair, wet with perspiration after the struggle of donning the suit alone. I check the numbers: they match. "Looks like everything is in order, ma'am."
"Thank you, Chief Petty Officer," she says, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "Now help me get that thing back on. It weighs a ton." She knows as well as I do that although the rank of Science Officer technically makes her my superior, she and the other scientists are expected to follow the orders of the actual crew on most matters. She may be proud of the three months of training she had in New London, but it's no match for my ten years of active service on Navy subs.
I reattach the helmet and make one last check to make sure the air tanks and their connections are securely fastened. "Be careful out there," I tell her "if you get in trouble it'll take us a good ten minutes to get another diver out there." Under normal circumstances, a solo dive would never be allowed. But circumstances are far from normal: by what I hear from the knuckle draggers, we may be stuck here a while. Might even have to resort to picking up pieces of the damn ship from the ocean floor just to get moving again.
Mary looks at me in silence as I close up the facial port. She says something I can't hear, and turns towards the airlock contraption the gearheads put together specifically for this mission. They surely were proud of that thing, showing it off to anyone with the necessary clerance. She steps into the small room, and gives me the thumbs up before closing the door behind her.
"Godspeed, Mary," I whisper as she walks into the tenebrous depths. Turning away, I make my way to the control room to take up radio duty.
I first met Science Officer Fletcher at New London. I'd been enjoying some hard-earned liberty at a dockside dive in Portsmouth after a rough few days out at sea, training newbies about the finer points of the Gato-class sub. I got my new, unexpected orders from a fresh-faced academy officer, just beaming with pride at getting to run errands for Admiral Hughes. His shiny dress uniform stood out in the drinking den like a brand new yacht at a fisherman's wharf. Large pearls of sweat ran down his extensive forehead as he explained that I did not, in fact, have the time to finish my drink. We got on a Jeep and headed for the Air Force base in Pease, where they had a Twin Beech sitting on the tarmac waiting for us with propellers spinning. It's not every day a Chief Petty Officer gets their own damn plane, I'll tell you that much. I had a lot of questions; he had no answers. It was a quiet, and mercifully short, trip south to the Naval Submarine Base.
So there I was, sitting in a stuffy auditorium filled with a queer assortment of people, wondering what exactly the Admiral wanted with an Old Salt like me. Mary didn't catch my eye at first: just another civvie in a room half full of them. It wasn't until later, when we were training said group of civvies, that I came to appreciate her sharp wit and the sailor's heart beating in her chest. I was one of the last to arrive and certainly the worst dressed of the bunch. The moment I began to realize just how much my life was about to change was when a very serious looking Commander hushed the room and explained to us in scrupulous detail what Top Secret classification means, and how the classification for what we were about to hear was even more severe than that draconian standard.
After the briefing I found myself just standing outside, dazed by the torrent of information that had flooded my senses in the auditorium. The presentation had dragged for hours, jumping between a bewildering array of subjects: ancient greek and viking mythology, deep ocean biology... even an odd woman who I could swear had mentioned Tarot card reading in a Navy briefing in front of two Admirals. Towards the end, recently recovered documents of a lost Nazi expedition, and the most pressing matter of them all: spy reports from Moscow, stating the express intent of the soviets to mount a submarine expedition in the North Atlantic. If there was one thing I had learned in the last few years of service, it was that whatever the commies were doing, we had to do better.
"I wonder what happened to them." A quiet voice to my right. Just a tiny hint of a Minnesota accent behind the careful, neutral articulation of a Harvard graduate. You get real good at recognizing accents in the service, as long as you're paying attention. I looked around and realized she was talking to me; there was no one else near enough to hear her.
"The nazis," she specified, mistaking my confusion for not following her meaning.
"I don't know. Perhaps we'll find out," I replied. "All I know is that when submarines are involved, it's easier to ask what can't go wrong than what can. Malfunctions, fire, torpedo explosions, simple human error..."
"Sounds like a dangerous occupation."
"It is," I extended my hand. "Joe. Joseph Krezinger, Chief Petty Officer, 10 years in the service."
"Nice to meet you, Joe. Mary Fletcher, comparative linguistics."
A sudden scream on the radio snaps me back to the present. "Fletcher, come in!" The radio is silent for a torturous moment, as my mind races between a variety of horrible scenarios.
"Sorry! I'm alright, I think." Her voice is trembling slightly. Something must've spooked her pretty bad.
"Copy that. What's your status, over."
"Still here. I... felt movement. Something brushing up against the leg of the suit. For a moment I thought... I don't know, must've been some fish. Scared the hell out of me." She's speaking furtively, as if she's afraid that giving voice to the nameless spectres of her imagination might summon them to reality. Despite some misgivings of my own, I realize she needs me to be confident for her. Panic is perhaps the most dangerous enemy a diver can face.
"Copy. You weren't the only one," I respond "Think you screamed loud enough for someone on the surface to hear and send help! Now calm down and don't forget voice procedure, ma'am. Over."
"Wilco, Joe." There's that sarcasm, again. Even on the radio she manages to get it across just fine. Still, it's an important point to make. Remembering the procedure in normal circumstances is easy, but when it really matters is when things get rough and you're under pressure. Botched comms kill sailors, especially inexperienced ones who actually need instructions. She continues: "I can see the ruins from here. Can't wait to take a look at those glyphs. The view from the periscope was not exactly pristine, over."
Her last comment makes me scoff. Ought to be grateful we have any kind of outside visibility at all, especially at this depth. Engineering worked day and night for that periscope to work as well as it did. Besides, it's a small miracle that it survived the incident when half the sub is flooded and most systems are out cold. She seems to have calmed down and forgotten about the scare she had earlier. Mission accomplished, I suppose; now if only I could calm my own ragged nerves as well.
"Alright, keep your eyes open and stay in touch, over."
"Should be a couple of minutes until I'm there," she says. "I'll get back to you, over and out."
We had been under way for three days when it happened. I was sitting in the galley trying to enjoy my meal: potatoes and gravy, standard shipboard fare. My usually quiet mealtime had been disrupted by a couple of the younger sailors bringing in a gramophone and blaring out some 'rock and roll' music. I think it was that greasy-haired youngster from Memphis. Not exactly my kind of tune, but when Mary walked in her eyes lit up. She took off her shoes and danced with one of the seamen; I ate and tried not to stare. Not for the first time, I considered the possibility of asking her out for dinner when we made it back from the mission. There I sat, stuck in a reverie, when the world collapsed all around us.
To this moment I do not know exactly what happened. The ship shook and groaned as if some gargantuan hand had seized it in its grasp and was whirling it through the ocean currents like a giant babe with a 20-ton plaything. We were tossed around wildly, with food, utensils and other items flying through the galley with potentially lethal force. All I could do was to shield myself as much as possible.
The chaos came to a sudden end and we crumpled on the floor like discarded marionettes. A stream of warm liquid ran down the back of my head. Blood, gravy, or both; I did not know. Just as I thought it might be over, the noise began. It started as a low, almost inaudible thrumming. If it wasn't for a seaman bringing his hand to his ear I would have thought it was only in my head: a predictable consequence of one of the hits my head took while I tumbled across the galley. The sound grew in power swiftly, though, and soon I could feel it in my chest. The feeling reminded me of when I used to climb on the hood of the truck my father drove at work while it was idling in the yard.
The pleasant memories did not last long. As the intensity of the reverberations continued to climb, they brought with them an excruciating pain. My head swam, and I heard someone retching in the background. I covered my ears, but the act offered almost no respite. The last thing I remember before everything went dark was an indescribable pattern in the sound, almost as if somewhere within that overpowering crescendo of noise there were words; alien to my ears, yet bearing some otherworldly semblance of structure.
When we awoke, there were only five of us left alive. Many, including three of those in the galley, had perished from wounds sustained during our chaotic tumble through the water. Crew near the reactor compartment had apparently been hit worse than anyone by the aural assault that followed: none had survived, and each had streaks of dried blood running from their ears. Many sections had flooded, and though there was no way for us to check we had to assume anyone in those compartments was gone as well. The most mysterious sight of all awaited us in the control room: like everywhere else, everything that was not bolted down had been scattered all over, but there was no sign of the Captain or any of the crew on shift at the time. We scoured all accessible areas of the ship, yet found nothing; it was as if they had vanished into thin air.
"Nobody is going to believe this." Her voice crackles through the radio again. "It's amazing. We're going to rewrite history when we get back, over." Mentally, I correct her to if we get back, but I know better than to say that out loud. As one of the two more experienced sailors remaining I know that I need to show an optimistic front, to keep the morale of the crew away from total collapse.
"Copy that, I'll make sure to throw out my collection of history books. What do you see, Mary? Over."
"Let's just say that if I saw this on dry land I'd chalk it up to pranksters with chisels - at least until an expert dated the carvings. There's glyphs here that bear a distinct resemblance to ancient Greek, but other elements that are unlike anything I've seen before. It's amazing, over."
"Glad to hear it. Any sign of anyone else having been there? Over." I'm still worried about the possibility of running into the soviet expedition. We may not be at war, but the rules are very different under the surface. In our crippled state we wouldn't stand a chance if they chose to eliminate the competition.
"Uh, no, I don't think so. How could I even tell? Now shut up, and let me- wait..."
"What? What is it, Mary?"
"Just - I'm okay, just be quiet for a moment, I need to listen."
What else can I do? I sit and wait for her to tell me what the hell is going on out there. The only way to actually see out of the ship is the periscope, and at these depths, with the damage we've sustained, just raising it carries a considerable risk of further flooding. At long last, she breaks the silence once again: "Okay, so this might sound a bit insane, but remember the emergency radio transponders they put on these suits?"
"Of course. What about them?"
"I'm pretty sure that I'm receiving the signal from one, Joe. Ever since I crested this little hill it's been there in the background noise, only barely strong enough to be distinguishable. We were missing some suits after the incident, do you think maybe..." My pulse quickened. An active emergency transponder should only mean one thing: a diver in trouble. But to my knowledge I was talking to the only diver who had left the ship!
"Copy that. I think I need to bring Mayfield in the loop on this one, standby two." Lieutenant Commander Mayfield was the ranking officer since the incident.
"Copy. Don't take too long, this is really-" Suddenly there's nothing but static on the line.
"Say again, I didn't catch that. Over." I wait for a moment, but there's nothing but white noise on the line. "Mary, come in!" My cool 'radio voice' is gone now, overruled by an acute feeling of dread.
I call out for anyone within earshot to come and take the comms. Whether anyone responds or not, I'm not sure; I feel sick to my stomach as I make my way to the periscope and start turning the crank of the raising mechanism. Something is wrong, of that I'm sure. The wheel turns agonizingly slowly, the pressure fighting against me with every pull. My shoulders ache by the time the periscope is finally up, and I lean in to take a look.
As before, only the thin stripe of ocean floor illuminated by the floodlight mounted on the sub itself is visible. Looking through so much water distorts and dims my view, but luckily the water here at the bottom of the ocean is fairly clear and calm. It doesn't take me long to find Mary, standing in the beam of light. However, my momentary relief swiftly turns into terror. As I watch, a large but slender silhouette appears between me and her, moving slowly yet with clear purpose. It slithers towards her with snake-like grace. "Mary!" I scream, although I know she can't hear me. "Turn around! Turn around now!"
Suddenly, it snaps towards her with incredible speed. As it wraps itself around her, I realize it looks like the tentacle of a gigantic octopus, with suckers that must be almost a foot wide. I can only stare in abject horror as she struggles fruitlessly, and the hideous thing begins to drag her out of the beam of light. A burst of bubbles is released from her suit: a broken seal allowing the contents of the air tank to escape. In mere moments, the rising bubbles are the only thing left visible.
It takes three men to stop me from putting on one of the other suits and going after her immediately. I sit in the corner of the trashed galley, staring into nothingness while the others talk. What they are discussing is important, I know; if we are to get out of this alive, we need a clear plan of action. Still, I can't bring myself to open my mouth. I fear that if I let out even a single word I'll also open the gates for the tears that are pushing against my eyes, their pressure building up like that of the ocean against the hull.
I know now, Mary. I know why the Nazi expedition never returned; it was not a malfunction, it was not a fire, or human error. It was this place, Mary. It took most of us when we arrived, but that did not quell its hunger for long. I feel it constantly, the call of the abyss: like the strange, unbidden urge to jump when standing on the edge of a cliff. It claimed the Nazis; it claimed the Captain and most of the crew. And now it has claimed you, too.
The water is still. Sepulchral silence hangs over the abyss. The crew rally around a shared kindling of hope: repairing the worst of the damage and making it back to the surface; back home. They are yet to understand what they have set in motion. In the darkness outside, faint echoes of their arrival reach the center of the ancient city. Tethers that have held fast for thousands of years begin to unravel under an immense strain.
The prisoner stirs.