NIMR Reports is a Fan Fiction Magazine on the World Wide Web for Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea starring Richard Basehart and David Hedison
The colony was ancient; under the living, tendrilled surface, the skeletal homes of ancestors stretched down, fathom below fathom, into the darkness. Here, on the lip of the abyss, where the sunlight was blue and dim, where the warm waters swirled up, laden with savoury minerals, out of the darkness, they had dwelt for ages reckoned only in the slow growth of the reef and the slower shifting of the great ocean currents. They knew the taste of the sea and the touch of the light and the patterns of the seasons; they knew the sleek shadows that passed through the upper waters, and the touch of the smaller creatures that drifted closer and came into the hungry embrace of tendrils.
Then--in a time when the waters were warming, when the microscopic clouds of prey had been growing thinner and fewer, when rumours of death and hunger drifted, tenuous with distance, from the far parts of the ocean--came a morning that seemed at first like any other, but was not. Before the angle of the light had turned halfway to its zenith, there came a shadow, too great for any creature the colony knew, that lay across the reef and did not move away. With the shadow came a tang of metal and another, unfamiliar bitterness.
Is this the oil the others spoke of? the colony wondered, and answered itself. Oil--and something else. Something worse, that could warp and kill.
But not strong, insisted another part of the consciousness. Not enough to harm.
What shall we do? Tendrils fluttered in agitation; a few of the more timid parts of the colony were already folding themselves down, disappearing into their stony cells.
Wait, only wait. This also will pass, as all things pass. We endure.
Presently, the waters stirred, and smaller shadow-shapes detached themselves from the great one.
Creatures. Clumsy creatures, churning up the water, flavouring it with other strangenesses. Coming too close ... too close!
In a ripple of panic, tendrils retreated all over the colony, until the reef seemed only a bare, pitted rock.
Hide. We hide ourselves, deep in our homes, until the danger passes.
Not deep enough! Hard edges crunch through the edges of cells ... Ah, the pain! The dying! We die!
Not all die! Most remain. The colony will endure.
Perhaps. But we ... we are no longer one. ... Darkness ... terror ... we whirl, adrift from the reef! Strange substances unfold us! We are ... lost!
Back aboard Seaview, Jack Swinburne finished toweling his hair and turned to the pile of specimen nets lying where the crewmen had dropped them in the corner of the laboratory.
"Satisfied, Dr. Swinburne?" With a grin, Seaview's captain appropriated the towel and applied it to his own damp-curled hair.
"It's a beginning." Swinburne pulled a pair of gloves over his long hands. "A good beginning. Another couple of days should complete the collection phase." He picked up one of the bags and spilled its contents across the bench, starting to sort through the intricate shapes. "If you'll excuse me, Captain, I have to get these specimens into tanks as soon as possible. Without the proper environment, they'll be useless--pretty, but dead."
"Of course," Crane said easily. "I'll leave you to it--let one of us know if you need anything. I expect the Admiral will be down to see how you're doing."
"Fine." Swinburne picked up a promising specimen and slipped it into the tank. "Be alive. You're beautiful--and I think you're a new species. So live, will you?" His voice was low, distant; he seemed already to have forgotten that he was not alone. Delicate, fanned-out branches glimmered through the water, pale as bone. After a moment, a softness blossomed at the tips. "Good, good." His closed lips curved in pleasure as he made a notation in his records, and moved on to the next specimen.
Crane left him to it, and went up to the Control Room.
"So how did it go?" Chip Morton asked him.
"Fine." Crane glanced out at the tranquil water beyond the nose window. Coral glades, intricately branched as a forest, stretched out below; the abyss was a shadow beyond the farthest and most fantastic formations. "Just between you and me, Chip, I think we could be in for a few days of peace and quiet for once."
"That would be a change." Morton passed over a clipboard of reports. "How about our visitor?"
"You know these civilian scientists. This one seems to be a competent enough diver, at least. I still don't want him going out there without experienced help, but I think he can handle himself."
"That's a deep drop-off out there."
"I know. I'd like to take the diving bell down there sometime."
"The Admiral was suggesting the same thing. But he's tied up with paperwork right now--hasn't left his desk all morning."
"That's a pity. He'd enjoy this."
"Would you want to disturb him when he's busy with research proposals?"
"You've got a point there." Crane picked up the log book and took it over to the table by the window, glad to see that the pot of coffee was still fresh. Outside, fish as bright as jewels flitted among the petrified branches; inside, men went about their duties, orderly and quiet, and indicator lamps flickered in safe, familiar patterns. He poured himself a cup of coffee and settled down to read.
In his cabin, Admiral Nelson scribbled a terse comment on the title page of a report, laid it aside and picked up another. The stack of rejected proposals, already precarious, collapsed under the weight of the addition, sending a landslide of paper across the desk. With a sigh, he scooped up most of the mess and moved it to the bunk.
The creatures are gone.
But the great shadow remains. They will return.
And more homes will be broken. More will die. More will be lost to us.
Ah, the sorrow. The pain. The great sorrow.
Hear us, far waters. Taste our pain and our warning on the winds of the sea.
They may hear, but they cannot help. That which is broken cannot be made whole again.
In the laboratory, Dr. Swinburne finished arranging the last specimens in their tank and sat down to write up his notes. Behind the glass, in the illuminated water, tiny fronds stretched out, swaying in the small, trapped currents of the circulation system, sending ripples of colour across the bony shapes; violet; crimson; aquamarine and gold.
"Beautiful," he murmured. The pen lay across the page, forgotten, as he watched. "Astonishing ... unique."
After a while, his fingers reached out for the pen, but his eyes never moved away from the swirling play of colour within the tank.
The sun climbed; the light grew to the brightness of noon, and began to slant away towards evening. The gashes in the reef where the specimens had been cut away began to fill up with shadow; the darkness that was the abyss crept a little closer to the ship. In Seaview's control room, Morton glanced at the chronometer, then at the Captain's head still bent over the log.
"Skipper?" he called tentatively. "You want anything to eat?"
"What?" Crane's voice was distant, preoccupied. "No, not now." He straightened, rubbing the back of his neck, and stood up. "I'll ... I'll go check on Dr. Swinburne in the lab."
"Suit yourself." Shrugging, Morton watched as the Captain disappeared up the spiral staircase. Then, with a tiny shake of his head, he went back to his own work.
Outside, the shadows lengthened.
Half an hour later, Crane came through the aft hatch into the Control Room. A crewman looked up from his station as he passed, and hastily returned his attention to his work when he saw the expression on the Captain's face. As he paced the length of the room, the ordinary quiet congealed into something almost solid.
"Mr. Morton." Crane spoke quietly, but there was an edge on his words that could have cut through Seaview's hull. "Prepare to get underway."
"Aye, sir." Morton's response came mechanically, but he found the presence of mind to ask, "What course, sir?"
"What does it matter? We won't make it back alive, whatever we do." The despair in Crane's voice was certain, and deadly in its very calm, but a moment later his face contorted, and the words that came next were almost a wail. "Just--get us out of here."
"Lee? What's gotten into you?" Bewildered, Morton reached out to put a steadying hand on his friend's shoulder, but Crane spun away.
"I ... gave ... you ... an ... order. Mr. Morton. Now are you going to carry it out, or do I have you put in irons?"
Now what? Either the Skipper's going out of his mind, or something happened while he was down below. Something terrible, by the look of him. But what? What could go wrong so suddenly?
The men hunched over their instruments stirred uneasily, knowing trouble when they heard it.
Oh, well. When in doubt, follow orders. Morton reached for the microphone, and began giving the orders to recall the diving parties and get underway. Crane watched for a while, and then, apparently satisfied, turned and almost ran up the stairs.
In his cabin, Nelson, keeping half an ear on the intercom as he worked, heard the orders being passed, and the throb as the engines came to life. It took a few minutes, however, before his conscious mind emerged from the complexities of a more than usually interesting research proposal and realized that something was amiss. Sighing, he pushed the papers aside and reached for the desk microphone to ask what was going on, then shook his head and got to his feet. A minute or so later he was hurrying down the stairs into the Control Room. Everything seemed normal enough at first glance, but a second look showed him the tension in Morton's shoulders as he gave orders, and the worried faces of the crew.
"What's going on?" Nelson demanded. "Why are we under way?"
"The Captain ordered it, sir," replied Morton.
"Did he indeed?" Taking a firm hold on his patience, Nelson faced the Executive Officer across the chart table. "And did he give you any particular reason?"
"No, sir." Morton looked even more unhappy. "Was it your order, sir?"
"No, it was not my order," Nelson snapped.
"Then I can't account for it. He didn't even give me a course, sir--just told me to 'get us out of here' and then stormed off somewhere."
Nelson frowned. "That doesn't sound like Lee."
"I know. I can't explain it, Admiral, but he didn't seem like himself.
"In what way?"
Morton glanced uneasily at the crewmen within earshot. "He seemed ... I don't know ... upset. Like something terrible had happened and he didn't want to talk about it."
"I see," said Nelson. "I think I'd better talk to the Captain. In the meantime--what course did you set, anyway?"
"Back to Santa Barbara, sir."
"That's fine. Stay with it for now."
Something was wrong; Nelson could almost feel it. It was nothing identifiable; the throb of the engine, the hum of the air circulation, the bleeps and clicks of instrumentation, were as they should be. Neither smoke, ozone, nor overheated oil tainted the air. Nevertheless, the sense of wrongness stayed with him, settling cold and heavy in the pit of his stomach as he climbed the stairs and followed the corridor back towards the officers' quarters. Crane's door was shut--defiantly, miserably shut, Nelson thought, before he caught himself.
It's a door. It can't talk. It certainly can't glare. Get a grip on yourself, man.
Taking a deep breath, Nelson rapped on the door.
"Go away!" Crane's voice sounded more muffled than it should have; worse, it had a brittle, cracking edge of hysteria.
"Lee! It's me--Nelson."
Nelson tried the door handle, and was not altogether surprised to find that the door was not only shut, but locked. "Lee, let me in. We have to talk."
"No. Leave me alone."
"Come on, Lee. This is ridiculous. If something's wrong, maybe I can help."
"No," came from behind the door. "Please, Admiral, just let me be. There's nothing you can do--nothing anyone can do!"
"How do you know that if you won't even tell anyone what the trouble is?" Nelson's throat was beginning to ache with the effort of projecting calm reason through two inches of door.
"Leave me alone," came again from inside.
"All right, if that's how you want it." Nelson glanced at his watch. "I'll give you half an hour to pull yourself together. After that, either you let me in, or we break down the door. It's your choice."
Silence. Silence, and then a dreadful, strangled sound that might have been a sob. Reluctantly, Nelson turned away and walked the few yards to his own cabin.
What did Chip say? Something terrible happened, and he can't talk about it? But what? What?
Nelson spent the next half-hour staring at the opening paragraph of a research proposal without understanding a word. Nothing happened; around him, the rhythms of the ship went on as normal, but he found himself, absurdly, tensing at every footstep in the corridor, every raised voice that came over the intercom.
At the end of the half-hour, Nelson went and tapped on Crane's door again.
"It's open." The voice from inside was dull.
Taking that as permission, Nelson pushed the door open and entered the cabin. "Lee?" he said uncertainly. Most of the lights were out; only a desk lamp made a pool of brightness in the centre of the room. Half-hidden in shadows, Crane was huddled in the recess of the bunk. "Mind if I turn the lights on?"
Nelson found the switch and flipped it up; sane, yellowish light flooded the room. Even in that prosaic illumination, he had to force himself to look at Crane's face.
"I see," he said after a moment. It was both better and worse than it might have been. He had been half-expecting some dreadful transformation or disfigurement, but this was just ... Lee; Lee blinking wetly in the sudden light, with his eyes -- his whole face -- red and swollen, his hair disheveled as if he had been running his hands through it, and his collar unbuttoned. Nelson pulled the door closed after him, stepped over to the desk and swung the chair around. "Now are you going to tell me what's wrong?"
"I'm sorry, Admiral." Crane ducked his head, wiping an already-damp sleeve across his eyes. "I don't know what came over me." His voice was low and not quite steady; he sounded, Nelson thought, unutterably weary. "It was ... for a while there, it felt like ... like everyone I ever cared for was dead, destroyed, like there was nothing left worth working for or fighting for."
"Oh? And what brought that on?" This was going to take a while; Nelson lowered himself into the chair and folded his arms.
"I don't know." There was a long, wretched pause. "It ... seemed to come out of nowhere. I was walking down the corridor, and then ... then I was still walking down the corridor, but everything was wrong. I couldn't even remember what I was doing in that part of the ship -- I just knew that we were in trouble, and I had to get Seaview out of there. Only I couldn't ... couldn't think. Couldn't give orders that would make sense. So I let Chip handle it -- practically bullied him into it -- and came and hid in here. After that ... after that it got worse, for a while."
"And then?" Nelson prompted, before the silence could stretch too far and turn to impossible awkwardness.
"And then ... it just stopped. Like a squall passing, or the sun coming out from behind a cloud."
But the sky's still stormy. This isn't over yet. "And how are you feeling now?"
"Tired. That's all ... tired and ashamed of myself. It wasn't ..." Crane stared off into space for a moment, and his words came flattened and dull from somewhere very far away. "It wasn't real, was it? It wasn't me. Something ... else." He shuddered, once, and then straightened slightly, and looked at Nelson. "Admiral, do you think I'm losing my mind?"
"No, of course not," Nelson said automatically. "I do think that maybe you've been working a little too hard lately."
"On this cruise?" Crane almost smiled.
"There've been plenty of rough missions in the last few months -- maybe it's just catching up with you now."
"Maybe." Crane sounded unconvinced. "Maybe all I need is a good night's sleep."
"Maybe. I think we'd better have Doc check you out, anyway."
"There's no need," Crane said, but it was a token protest.
"Come on, Lee. Wash your face first, and then I'll take you down to Sick Bay."
For a moment longer, Crane stayed where he was. Then, reluctantly, he uncurled himself and stood up. His movements were stiff, uncertain, but Nelson resisted the impulse to jump up and help him. Leave him a little pride. Something's wrong -- badly wrong -- but Doc should be able to sort it out. I hope.
It was then, just as Crane started to run water in the Head, that the intercom blared.
"Control to Admiral Nelson! Control to Admiral --"
Nelson reached for the desk microphone. "Control, this is Nelson. What's the trouble?"
"Admiral." Morton sounded harassed and breathless. "There's a problem in the laboratory."
"What sort of problem?"
"Can you meet me down there, sir?"
Is everyone aboard this ship cracking up, or is it just the officers? "I'm on my way."
The water stopped running; Crane came out, rubbing at his face with a towel.
"I'm coming with you."
"No you aren't." Nelson barred Crane's way to the door even as he moved in that direction himself. "The only place you're going for now is the Sick Bay, and that's final."
Rebellion flickered in Crane's eyes, but only for a second before he nodded and stood aside. He was in no condition for duty, and he knew it.
There was a guard at the Laboratory door.
A guard? Over some specimens of coral?
"I'm sorry, sir." The man's eyes darted up and down the corridor; his hand was tense on the grip of a sidearm. "Mr. Morton gave orders no-one was to come in here."
"I'm supposed to be meeting him here," Nelson pointed out, but the guard did not move. A muscle jumped at the corner of his jaw; he was, Nelson suspected, terrified, and not simply by being caught between conflicting authorities. That made no sense at all, unless .... Is it colder down here than it ought to be? Darker? Nelson resisted the impulse to rub his arms against the sudden prickle of gooseflesh. Something -- something far worse than an upset Lee Crane -- was behind that door. Nonsense. I'm jumping at shadows. Jumping at ... footsteps!
"Admiral! I'm glad you're here, sir." Chip Morton covered the last few feet of corridor at a half run; he wore a sidearm in a holster that had been buckled in a hurry, and his tie was askew. At the sight of him, the guard lowered his own weapon an inch or two.
"What is all this?" Nelson demanded. "What happened in there?"
"You -- you'd better see for yourself, sir," said Morton. "All right, Barclay. We're going in."
The guard stood aside; Morton took a key from his pocket and turned it in the lock. The door opened outward, slowly, dragging a little on hinges that had never been the same since the last time the crew had needed to break into the Laboratory. Nelson stepped inside, and stopped short. All the lights were on: not only the normal room lights and the lights in the specimen tanks, but every available reading lamp and spotlamp, making a jumble of harsh shadows and wavering, watery reflections on every surface. Only one tank -- the one with a jagged hole smashed in the glass -- was dark; water pooled among the glittering shards on the deck below it. That destruction, however, held Nelson's attention for no more than a couple of heartbeats. On the central bench, dark shadows clotted and shifted over the pages of an open notebook. Looking up, he saw what had cast them: not a kitbag or a diving suit dangling from the overhead beam, but a human figure, twisting slowly back and forth with the motion of the ship.
With a exclamation, Nelson grabbed a pair of wire-cutters, clambered up on the bench and severed the flex that held the body there, letting it thud to the floor. Neither Morton nor the guard hovering at the door made any move to slow its fall. It was a body; the distorted, congested face and bluish lips left no room for doubt, even before he jumped down to check the pulse. Dr. Swinburne was quite dead, and had been for some time; the blood on his lacerated right hand was almost dry, and his flesh was cold.
"Who found him?" Nelson asked.
"Patterson, Admiral. He stopped by with a cup of coffee for Dr. Swinburne, and found him like that." Morton swallowed, glancing involuntarily at the little pile of smashed crockery by the door. "It shook Patterson badly -- he must have dropped the cup right there, and come running up to the Control Room to report it. He was in such a state, I had to send him down to Sick Bay."
"So you came down here, posted a guard, and then went all the way back to the Control Room again and called me from there?"
"Yes, sir." Morton looked uncomfortable, as well he might.
"And can you explain why?"
"No, Admiral. I can't explain it. I just ... couldn't seem to think straight, when I saw what was in here." Morton twisted his hands together, and stopped the movement with a visible effort.
"I ... see." There was a pattern here, somewhere, but Nelson could not bring it into focus. The dead man's eyes, bulging and sightless, stared up at him; absently, he reached out and closed them.
"I'm sorry, Admiral."
"Never mind," Nelson said heavily. "Did you at least think to notify the doctor?"
"Not yet, sir."
"Then you'd better do that now, hadn't you?"
"Yes, sir. Right away, sir."
The doctor sounded preoccupied when he answered the intercom, and it was several minutes before he appeared in person. Nelson dismissed Morton back to his duties in the Control Room, and then prowled around the laboratory, peering into specimen tanks, picking up discarded pieces of equipment and putting them down again. He knew very well that he was fidgeting, but he could not be still. A sense of waste and futility oppressed him. Only a couple of hours before, that ... thing ... on the floor, inadequately covered by a spread-out laboratory coat, had been a talented and eager young scientist who should have had a lifetime of learning and achievement ahead of him. Now he was dead, senselessly, by his own hand. Had he been carrying the seeds of his own death before he ever came aboard Seaview? Or had something in this room driven him to suicide?
"What took you so long?" Nelson demanded, when the doctor finally arrived.
"I'm afraid I've had my hands full, Admiral." The doctor crouched down beside the body, flipping aside the makeshift covering, and pursed his lips. "So this is what drove Patterson over the edge of hysteria."
"So it would seem." Nelson watched as the doctor examined the body. "Can you tell how long he's been dead?"
"No more than an hour, I'd say, Admiral. You found him hanging?"
"Up there." Nelson gestured at the cut ends of wire still dangling from the beam overhead.
"I see." The doctor shook his head. "It certainly looks like suicide, but I'd have to make a more thorough examination to be sure."
"I'll have the body moved to Sick Bay." Nelson hesitated, reaching for the nearest microphone. "You say it was Patterson that delayed you?"
"I'm afraid so." The doctor frowned at the memory. "I've never seen him so upset -- I don't remember the last time I saw anyone that upset. I couldn't leave him until the sedative took effect."
"But he'll be all right?"
"I hope so."
"And you haven't seen the Captain?"
"The Captain? No. Should I?"
"I'd like you to check on him -- and then report to me in my cabin."
"Aye, sir." Doc snapped his case shut and stood up.
"And ..." Nelson found himself rubbing his hands together. "I don't think you need to mention this ... incident ... to the Captain."
"I've given him a sedative," the doctor reported, a quarter of an hour later, in the Admiral's cabin.
Nelson nodded, pushing away the laboratory notebook he had been studying. "Have you any idea what's wrong with him?"
"He's exhausted, and very upset." The doctor's brows drew together in a frown. "I hope it's not too serious, but ... if I didn't know him so well, I'd say he was in the early stages of a severe depression."
"In other words, a nervous breakdown?"
The doctor looked uncomfortable. "It's too early to be sure -- and I'd have expected some warning signs. This seems too ... sudden, somehow; it just doesn't make sense."
"Neither does Dr. Swinburne's suicide," Nelson observed.
"It was certainly -- unexpected," the doctor said cautiously. "Maybe the autopsy will turn up something to explain it. As for the Captain , if he isn't much improved after a night's rest, I'll have to give him a more thorough examination."
"Maybe we'll all feel better for a night's sleep." Nelson rubbed at the bridge of his nose, then at his temples. "It's been ...." He broke off.
"I was going to say, it's been a long day," Nelson admitted. "But that's absurd. It's barely even dinner-time yet."
"Are you feeling all right?"
"It's nothing." Nelson massaged his temples again. "A bit of a headache, that's all." Or is something nibbling at the edges of my mind, trying to get in?
"Take a break," the doctor advised. "Get something to eat. As you say, Admiral, it is almost dinner-time."
"I think I will. Thank you, doctor. And -- let me know what you find out from the autopsy?"
"Of course, sir."
After the doctor had gone, Nelson sat for a few minutes longer, staring at Swinburne's notebook. It was so normal, in the beginning; neat entries described each specimen and what had been done with each. Then, towards the bottom of the second page, the handwriting began to deteriorate, and the notes degenerated into scrappy phrases; the fourth page was a scrawl that Nelson could hardly decipher, trailing away into blots and smears. What words he could make out, on that last page, were nothing to do with science.
"Death," he murmured aloud. "All lost ... broken ... dead."
Shaking his head, he closed the book, locked it away in the desk drawer, and headed for the Control Room.
"Isn't it time someone relieved you?" he asked Morton, when he found him still presiding over a subdued crew.
"I guess so." Morton looked up from the charts, laying down his ruler. "It won't be the Captain, I take it, sir?"
"I'm afraid not."
"I should have known. He wasn't quite like himself, even before he went down to the laboratory."
"He's resting now; he won't be back on duty until tomorrow morning at the earliest. But that doesn't mean you have to stay here all night; we're not exactly short of junior officers, are we?" Nelson tried to speak lightly, but he suspected that Morton was not deceived.
"I'll check the rosters, sir."
"Very good. But before you go off duty, there's just one thing; I want a course change. We're going back to where we're supposed to be."
Surprise flickered behind Morton's eyes, but all he said was, "Aye, sir."
"You have the co-ordinates; come morning, I want Seaview there.
"Aye, sir," Morton said again -- not understanding, and probably not approving, but doing his job anyway.
"And if there's any problem during the night, I want to be informed personally; the Captain's not to be disturbed for any reason." Nelson gave the Executive Officer a steady look, confident that he would understand that much at least. "I'll see you in the Officer's Mess in ten minutes, Mr. Morton."
It was a hasty and mostly silent meal; no-one in the Mess seemed to be in the mood for conversation that evening. Afterwards, the Admiral went back to his cabin. Discomfort still nagged behind his eyes, though two cups of coffee had helped a little. He glanced through a couple more research proposals, and then gave up, realizing that he was not accomplishing anything useful. Weariness washed over him in dark waves; his eyes would not stay focused even when he forced them open. What does it matter, anyway? This can wait. He gathered up the heap of papers from the bunk and moved them back to the desk, and then kicked off his shoes and lay down. Just for a few minutes. It's going to be a long night. Just ... a few minutes. As if the bed had been quicksand, he felt sleep sucking him down.
In the darkened laboratory, tendrils stirred, tasting water that was stale and shallow despite the busy bubbling of air through the tanks.
We are returning. We come closer to home, again.
Too late. We are broken; there is no returning. We cannot be a part of the colony again.
Then what becomes of us?
Only death. Long sorrow, and then death.
In the corridor adjoining the laboratory, Crewman Clark, checking wiring in a junction-box, hummed softly and tunelessly to himself, not discontented with a solitary work detail. The wiring seemed to be in order; he probed delicately with his screwdriver, testing junctions, and then scribbled a notation on his worksheet, clipped the cover back in place, and moved on. Nothing out of the ordinary tonight. I'll be done in half an hour at this rate. He stopped at the next junction-box, reaching out to open it, and stopped, frozen in mid-movement, as the realization came crashing in on him. I shouldn't be doing this. I shouldn't even be here, in this floating steel coffin. I must have been crazier than they thought, to take this job after what happened before. Why? What made me do it? The screwdriver from his suddenly sweat-slick grasp and skittered away across the deck. It's too late now. No way out. This is a doomed ship -- always was. Why did I let them tell me it would be safe? Why did I keep believing them, after everything that's happened, these last few years? His knees, weakened by the memory of terror, would not hold him up; he crouched down, huddling against the bulkhead, shaking.
In the Crew's Quarters, Crewman Stroby reached for the whiskey-bottle again, upending it over the coffee-mug. A few drops trickled out.
"Hey, ladsh. Anyone got 'nother bottle?"
Silence. The gramophone had stopped; of the half-dozen or so men in the room who were awake, most were hunched over the table, intent on reading.
"I shaid, anyone got another bottle?" Stroby banged the empty one on his end of the table for emphasis, rattling the discarded dishes.
"Haven't you had enough?" someone asked.
Stroby contemplated the room; the bunks and lockers wavered, as if he was still looking through water, but he was definitely conscious.
"Not 'nough. Not nearly 'nough. Not every day a man finds a whole new coral shpecies. Tellin' you, it screamed when I cut it."
"Come on, sailor. Coral doesn't scream." That was Kowalski, cocky as ever, lounging at the table. "What would it use to make the sound with?"
"I'm tellin' you," Stroby insisted. "Sh-shure as I hear you now. It went right through me. Maybe that sc-schientist guy heard it too."
A stillness fell on the room, then.
"I guess we'll never know that," Kowalski said at last. "But one thing I do know, Stroby. You're not having another drop of that booze tonight."
"Oh yeah? And how're you going to shtop me?" Stroby lurched to his feet, ignoring the way the deck tilted under him, and put up his fists.
"Come on, Stroby. Go to bed."
Hands reached out to steady him; he lashed out, not caring where the blows went. "Don't believe me, do you? Even the Skipper didn' believe me. But I know what I heard. Know ... what ... heard." The room slanted, spinning.
"Watch out!" someone yelled. Someone else -- farther away, and getting farther with every pulsing gyration of the walls -- said, "Better take him down to Sick Bay."
Seaview was falling, plunging out-of-control into an abyss like some gargantuan maw, twisting like a toy in a murky, rushing current that led down into darkness. In the Control Room, only dead men minded the dead instruments; in the Circuitry Room, a few bedraggled survivors danced a violent, ugly, spark-lit ballet with shaggy creatures that seemed made of slime and bottom-ooze; in the Missile Room, something -- some malfunction, some carelessly aimed punch, some long-planned treachery -- had triggered an automatic countdown to the destruction of the world. Trapped inside his own mind while some other, malign being held his body to ransom, Nelson watched and knew that there was nothing he could do. Even his screams went unvoiced, stifled in his throat as the buffeting of the stricken ship flung his body from side to side.
"What?" He found his voice at last, and with it the ability to open his eyes. He shut them again, hastily, against the glare of electric light. "What is it?"
"Admiral? Are you all right, sir?"
"Doc?" Nelson squinted up at the face above him. "What's happening?"
"You were having a nightmare." Doc's thin features were pinched with exhaustion and worry. After a moment, he took a step back and leaned against the desk.
"Is that all?" Nelson sat up, rubbing his eyes. "What time is it?"
"Just before midnight. I didn't think you'd be asleep yet."
"Well, I'm awake now," Nelson said, not very graciously. "What did you want to tell me? Did you find out anything from the autopsy on Swinburne's body?"
"Nothing so far. I'm still running tests, but there's nothing to indicate it was anything other than suicide. What drove him to it ... well, that's more than an autopsy is likely to tell us, but I'm almost positive he wasn't rational at the time."
"That broken tank?"
"Exactly. Admiral, he punched through half-inch plate glass with his bare hand -- tore the flesh to ribbons and smashed half-a-dozen bones. That isn't the action of a sane man. He must have been in agony, but not for long; he died before the tissue started to swell or bruise, and that can't have been more than a couple of minutes. Come to that, the bleeding might have killed him if he'd waited long enough."
"So you think he lost his mind, smashed his hand into the tank and then hanged himself? It's hard to believe, Doc."
"It does happen, and maybe none of us knew him well enough to spot the danger signs. But ... I'm afraid one dead man isn't the most pressing thing on my mind right now."
"Oh?" What else? What else can go wrong in one evening? Nelson stood up and went to fetch himself a glass of water. "Lee?"
"I checked on him just now, and he's sleeping like a baby."
"Well, that's something. What else is bothering you, doctor?"
"Admiral, in the last couple of hours I've had half-a-dozen requests for sleeping pills from men who never needed them before, four requests for stimulants, and more men complaining of headaches than I can count. Then there's the accidents -- only little ones, but things that shouldn't have happened. And that's only the minor things; we've also got one case of alcohol poisoning, in a man who managed to put away a whole bottle of whiskey in the crew's quarters before anyone thought to stop him, and another case of acute depression."
"Who?" The glass shook in Nelson's hand. This isn't real. I've just gone from one nightmare into another.
"Clark," Nelson echoed. "Well, at least that figures." Clark, who thought and felt too much for a mere electrician, but lacked the crucial strength that might have made him fit to be an officer, had seemed stable enough for the last year or so, but there was nothing very surprising about his collapse. But ... why now? Why this night, of all nights?
"Admiral," the doctor said unhappily, "I don't like saying this, but I think we may have a serious morale problem on our hands."
Morale problem? On Seaview? That doesn't make sense -- the Captain wouldn't let ... The Captain's under sedation, on the edge of a breakdown himself.
"This was supposed to be an easy cruise."
"I know. But we have to face it, Admiral; this crew is falling apart. Headaches, nightmares, insomnia, alcohol abuse, dangerous carelessness, quarrels ... it all points to a crew under intolerable strain."
"But this morning, everything was fine," Nelson pointed out. His thoughts were sluggish, still clogged with the residue of nightmare. What's wrong with us? What's wrong with me? "Could there be some other explanation?"
"Do you have any ideas?"
"You're the doctor -- you tell me. An epidemic of some kind? Something in the air?"
"It's possible," the doctor admitted. "It doesn't seem likely, but I've seen stranger things."
"See what you can find out. And get me detailed lists of the affected men; maybe there's some pattern in what they've been doing."
"I'll look into it, sir. But ..."
"What?" Nelson demanded, when the doctor hesitated.
"If you'll excuse my saying so, Admiral, you don't seem to do to be doing too well yourself. Perhaps you should be resting."
"I'm fine." It was hardly true, but he was at least still functioning after a fashion. Deliberately, he kept his tone dry. "If I should become incapacitated, doctor, you'll probably be the first to know about it. In the meantime, we both have work to do."
The doctor left. A few minutes later, a corpsman arrived with the lists, which ran to several pages. Nelson scanned them, shaking his head, not seeing any obvious pattern in the names or the symptoms. Perhaps the duty roster would reveal something. He slipped the sick-list into the desk drawer with Swinburne's notes and made his way down to the Wardroom in search of the information he needed.
Closer. We come closer; we hear more strongly. We are stronger, now.
It does not matter. It is only a delay, before all perish.
At least -- at least we need not die alone.
In Air Revitalization, Crewman Letts looked up suddenly. Nothing had changed in the soft, ceaseless roar of the air through the great vents, or in the rhythmic click and sigh of the valves, but he knew that something had summoned him. The thing that had called to him as he worked on the reef that morning, and had stayed with him through the dark dreams of his off-duty hours, was calling again. Death was in that call, and the dark lure of the deepest places, and this time it would not be denied. Slowly, as if he still moved weighted and flipper-footed through the water, he went to the door, closed it, and walked away down the corridor.
Nelson found the Wardroom dark and deserted; no-one, it seemed, was feeling sociable tonight. He flicked on the light and surveyed the room, noting the signs of disorder. A scatter of playing-cards on the table suggested that someone had been playing solitaire, and had abandoned the game half-finished, sweeping the neat piles into disorder. Dark shards from a smashed gramophone record lurked among crumpled paper in the waste-paper bin. Nelson helped himself to the rosters from the bulletin board, poured himself a cup of coffee from a pot that had been sitting too long on the hotplate, and retreated to his cabin.
Sipping the bitter, sludgy coffee, he pored over the lists again, making pencil-marks on the rosters by the names of the men who had reported problems: one cross for a headache; two for a request for medication; three or four for complete incapacitation. In all, nearly a third of the crew had been affected in some way. Nelson considered that assessment, and amended it; nearly a third of the crew had been affected badly enough to seek medical help. He had no idea how many others, more stoical than their comrades or more reluctant to admit weakness, were suffering in silence. And that dream ... that dream. He shook his head, not wanting to think about that, but the memories flooded back. Disaster and failure and death ... death for the whole world. Swept away, helpless, without hope. Nothing to be done but .... He shook his head again, shuddering, and glanced at his watch. Nearly a quarter of an hour had passed, somehow, while he sat in useless contemplation of a bad dream; the remains of the coffee were nearly cold.
He looked through the list again, squinting at it in the hope of spotting some pattern, and noticed that the marks indeed seemed to cluster more thickly in some parts of the roster. He doodled frames around those sections, and then jotted down the headings: second aft starboard watch; third aft starboard watch; starboard electrical maintenance. Perhaps half of the marked names fell in those sections.
"Coincidence?" Nelson murmured, reaching for a fresh sheet of paper. It did not take long to sketch out a rough plan of Seaview's deck layout. When he started to mark in the duty stations of the men on the list, the pattern became clearer. Whatever was wrong with the crew, it was concentrated in the aft starboard section of the ship. That accounted for Dr. Swinburne, secluded in the laboratory all afternoon, and maybe for Clark, who had been working on electrical maintenance in the same section. Unfortunately, it did not explain Crane's condition. For that matter, the alcohol-poisoning case, Stroby, had not been on any of the worst-affected watches. Frowning, Nelson flicked back through the list, trying to find the man's name again. Pain throbbed behind his eyes, making it hard to concentrate, but he found it at last.
Special Diving Party, 1000h-1200h: Captain Crane; Dr. Swinburne; Crewman Stroby; Crewman Letts.
The name of Letts did not appear anywhere on the doctor's list; according to the roster, he should be standing the night watch in the Air Revitalization room, aft and portside. Nelson reached for the intercom microphone, and then thought better of it. Even if the walk did not clear his thinking, he could stop by the galley on the way back for fresh coffee. He levered himself out of his chair, slipped the papers back in the drawer for what seemed like the fifteenth time that night, and set out for Air Revitalization.
There was no-one there. The lights were on, and the equipment was running as normal; out of habit, Nelson checked the dials and found nothing out of order. Of Letts, or of anyone who might have taken over his duty, there was no sign. Nelson walked twice around the room, stooping to look under the consoles and even checking the vent grilles that covered most of one wall, before he spotted the record sheet lying by the control panel. The man on the previous watch had made his entries every hour until he was relieved at midnight; Letts, apparently, had signed himself in, but done nothing more. Nelson glanced at his watch; it was half-past two in the morning, and there ought to have been two more entries by now. He entered his own readings, added a note that he had found the post deserted, and initialed it. Then he made his way to the Control Room, through corridors that seemed oddly deserted even for that hour of the night. There should have been some passing crewman whom he could send to cover Air Revitalization, but he met no-one all the way, and most of the lights were turned low.
The Control Room, by contrast, was day-time bright, and much too quiet. Lieutenant O'Brien was on the periscope platform, with tension in every line of his body as he watched the men hunched over their instruments, and one hand never far from his sidearm holster.
"Mr. O'Brien," Nelson said quietly.
"Admiral," the Lieutenant responded, turning his head. It was only after he had spoken and turned that he jumped -- as if his mind had been miles away, and not all of it had come back at the same time. "I'm sorry, sir. Is there a problem?"
"By the look of you, I should be the one asking that question."
"No, Admiral." O'Brien swallowed hard. "No problem. We're getting close to the co-ordinates you ordered."
"Very good. Are you sure there's nothing wrong?"
"It's ... quiet, sir. Very quiet. We're short-handed tonight, and ... what happened this afternoon has everyone a bit on edge." Once O'Brien had started, he seemed to have trouble stopping himself, but he managed it with another convulsive swallow.
"Were you aware that there's no-one on duty in Air Revitalization?"
O'Brien blinked. "No, sir. That can't be right." He looked around, distractedly, for his copy of the duty roster.
"Here." Nelson retrieved the clipboard from the floor under the periscope and handed it over.
"Thanks, sir. You see, it's right here -- Air Revitalization, Letts."
"Then where is he? I was down there just now, and there was no-one about. You didn't order him somewhere else?"
"No, Admiral. I swear I didn't. Is there a problem down there?"
"Not so far. But I want a man down there right away, if you have to get one out of bed to do it -- and I want Letts found." Nelson realized, then, that O'Brien was looking at him oddly. Perhaps he was over-reacting to a minor dereliction of duty, but that list kept repeating in his mind like a knell: Swinburne, Crane, Stroby -- and Letts. "The diving party," he mumbled. "He was with the divers this morning. I have to talk to him."
"And another thing," Nelson added, as the lieutenant reached for the microphone. "Have the galley send a couple of pots of coffee up here. We could all use some."
"Yes, sir." O'Brien relaxed slightly at that.
The coffee was some time in coming, but it came at last. Nelson was finishing his first cup when the search party sent after Letts came back empty-handed, reporting that the missing man was not in any of the crews' quarters, nor in Sick Bay, nor back where he should have been in Air Revitalization. Nelson, sitting at the table by the window, nodded grimly, and let O'Brien order a further search of the stores lockers, pressure chambers and other nooks and crannies where a man might hide. There was a lot of Seaview for a man to lose himself in, if he was determined to do so. Why Letts, whom Nelson remembered, now that he put his mind to it, as a lanky, genial man with a family in San Francisco, would be determined on anything of the kind, it was hard to imagine.
"Admiral," O'Brien said, some time later.
"Hmm." Nelson pulled his eyes away from the dark window, and made a conscious effort not to jump.
"We're at the co-ordinates, sir."
"Very good. Hold position here." It was four in the morning, and the water was as ink-black as it would ever be. Somewhere out there, Nelson remembered, was a chasm so deep that it had never been properly charted. He was relieved to see, when he glanced at the depth indicator, that Seaview's position was well away from the brink of the abyss, with only a hundred feet or so of water between her keel and the sandy, coral-humped seabed. He stood up, meaning to return to his cabin, but the half-desperate look on O'Brien's face stopped him. It was absurd -- nothing was happening that the lieutenant could not easily handle -- but this was not, it seemed, a good night for rationality. Casually, as if that had been his intention all along, Nelson collected a couple of sheets of paper and a pencil from the chart table, giving the young officer an encouraging touch on the arm as he passed, and then went back to his seat and settled down to work.
Two hours later, when Chip Morton came blearily back on duty, Letts was still missing and Nelson was still sitting by the window, watching as the dawn light filtered through the water.
"Admiral? Is there anything wrong, sir?" Morton asked, halting at the foot of the spiral staircase.
"That's a good question, Chip." Nelson stretched and rubbed the back of his neck. "Have some coffee, and I'll fill you in."
"It doesn't sound good, does it?" Morton said when he had heard the story of the night. "But why Letts?"
"If he's alive and conscious," Nelson pointed out, "he's the only member of that diving party who is. Maybe he remembers something important. I'd like to talk to him -- but whether he turns up or not, I'm going down in the diving bell as soon as it's properly light. Have it made ready for 1000 hours."
"Aye, sir." Morton kept his voice neutral, but his doubts were plain in his face.
"Any questions?" Nelson prompted.
"No, sir. I just -- Admiral, what do you expect to find down there?"
"I don't know, Chip." Nelson gulped a mouthful of cold coffee. "Answers, I hope. And in the meantime, we've got some duty rosters to revise."
"I know." Morton flipped over the first sheet of the clipboard he had brought with him. "I don't remember the last time we had a sick list this long."
They were still working on the rosters half an hour later, when Crane came down the stairs into the Control Room.
"Lee! What are you --" Nelson and Morton exclaimed almost in unison.
"It's all right." Crane managed a strained smile. "I'm feeling much better this morning. Anyway, I can't be any worse off than most of the rest of the crew."
Nelson gave him a measuring look, and had to agree that, though still rather haggard, he was looking more like himself. "You may have a point there," he conceded.
Then Crane looked out of the window. "We're back where we started," he said tonelessly.
"Of course," said Nelson.
Crane gripped the edge of the table. "Why?"
"Why not?" Nelson said reasonably. "We haven't finished our work here."
"We could have been nearly home by now!"
"Why don't we talk this over in my cabin?" Nelson suggested.
"Now," Nelson said, when they reached the privacy of his quarters and Crane had settled into a chair, "first of all, has Doc passed you fit for duty?"
"What do you mean by that?"
"I did stop by Sick Bay, but Doc wasn't there. The corpsman said he was resting -- he'd been up all night. Admiral, what's wrong with this ship?"
"I wish I knew." Nelson sighed. "One thing's for sure -- you aren't the only one in trouble." He hesitated, then, and glanced over to make sure that the door was closed. "Lee, do you know about what happened to Dr. Swinburne?"
"Happened to him? No. Is he all right?"
"He's dead. Lee, I have to ask this -- when did you last see him alive?"
"We took the specimens down to the lab together after we came back from the dive," Crane replied promptly. "I left him there -- about noon, I think."
"You didn't go down to the lab later on?"
"No." Crane frowned. "At least -- I don't think so."
"You don't think so?"
"There's ... a blank spot," Crane confessed. "I was down in the corridors around there -- I think I meant to check on him. But then the -- whatever it was -- hit me, and I went back to the Control Room. If -- if I was there, Admiral, I don't remember it."
"You don't -- Admiral, you don't think I had anything to do with his death?"
"No," Nelson said after a moment. "No, I don't think so."
"How ... did it happen?"
"We're almost certain it was suicide," Nelson said, evading the question.
If Crane noticed the evasion, he chose not to comment on it. "That doesn't make any sense," he said. "He was fine when I saw him, I swear."
"None of this makes a lot of sense, I'm afraid," said Nelson. "Was there anything strange about the diving mission? Anything at all that you remember?"
"Nothing -- or maybe one thing."
"One of the men -- Stroby, I think -- well, it probably isn't important. When we started cutting the specimens, he -- he freaked out for a minute. Something about the coral screaming, he said."
"Nothing. We got him calmed down and got on with the job, that's all. I'd almost forgotten the whole business."
"Screaming coral?" Nelson shook his head. "That's a new one."
"It was ... I don't know." Crane raked his fingers through his carefully-brushed hair. "I've been dreaming about that reef all night, and now I can't remember how it really was."
"Never mind," Nelson advised. "I'll find out for myself in a few hours."
"You're going out?" Crane looked startled.
"In the diving bell. If there's something down there, we need to know about it. Do you have a problem with that, Captain?"
Crane was silent for a moment. "I just ... Admiral, are you sure you aren't letting your scientific curiosity get the better of your judgement?"
"Curiosity? Hardly. I don't much like any of this, but we have to find out what's going on."
"Couldn't we just ... leave it, and go home?"
"And what if there's something aboard with us? Something that could spread, if we took it ashore? Do you want to be responsible for starting an epidemic of ... whatever it is?"
"Of course not! But we don't know that." Crane narrowed his eyes suddenly. "Or do you know something you're not telling?"
"I don't know anything, Lee. But I intend to find out -- and that abyss seems like a good place to start looking."
"Very well, Admiral." Crane straightened in his chair. "Is there anything I can do?"
Is there anything anyone can do? With an effort, Nelson pulled his thoughts back out of the abyss. "I'm not sure you should be doing anything but rest, but if you really want to make yourself useful --"
"You could go help Chip with the duty rosters ... no, there is something else. The search parties are getting nowhere; if you could take charge of that, it would be a load off my mind."
"Search parties, Admiral?"
Briefly, Nelson explained about the missing Letts.
"Letts is a good man," Crane said, frowning. "No high-flyer, but I don't remember him ever getting into trouble before. Very well, Admiral, I'll get right on it."
In the stifling dark of the crawl space below the Missile Room deck, Letts hugged his knees and concentrated on breathing quietly, willing the footsteps not to come any closer.
"Check the Escape Hatch." That was the Skipper, crisp and authoritative as ever. The footsteps moved away, and after a moment there came the metallic clang of the Escape Hatch door. "All right, move out. I'll need a couple of volunteers to cover the ventilation ducts." Footsteps tramped across the deck again, and another hatch slammed.
You have done well. They will not find you now.
There it was again -- the dark voice that was not a voice and yet was not a part of his own thoughts either. "Who are you?" he whispered, not for the first time. "What do you want with me?"
You know what we are. You are one of those who brought us here, and now you will be a part of our vengeance. You will wait, and be silent, until the time comes.
"Time for what?"
For death, of course. There can be no other end to this, now.
For a moment, he knew that he should stop listening to the voice, that he should go out into the light and face whatever punishment was due for leaving his post. Even the Brig would be more comfortable than this cramped, suffocating place; even the Chief or the Skipper at their angriest would be better than this soft chorus whispering of death. Then the darkness crashed in again, and he understood afresh that light and comfort and familiar faces were gone from his world for ever. He reached out, checking the cold shape of the crowbar at his side, then tracing the conduits that snaked across the walls, knowing what he must do.
When Crane had gone, Nelson wandered down to the laboratory. He found it unguarded; the man posted there had been relieved, at some time during the night, and posted to more urgent duties. He unlocked the door and let himself in, flicking on the lights as soon as he was inside. Apart from the removal of Swinburne's body, nothing had been disturbed; glass and crockery still littered the floor. Air bubbled softly through the water in the specimen tanks where Swinburne's specimens waved their rainbow fronds.
Screaming coral. Nelson went over, crunching fragments of glass underfoot, and bent down to inspect one of the specimens more closely. It looked ordinary enough -- pretty, but rather forlorn on the pebbly floor of the tank. He flipped up an access panel and reached inside; instantly, the tentacles retracted, and what he picked up was only a pitted white sculpture, fragile and intricate as the bones of a bird. The headache that had been with him all night chose that moment to stab him behind the eyes with blinding force. The coral shattered in his convulsing fingers; when he could see again, he thought for a moment that he had cut himself to the bone, but soon realized that what he held was only a few sharp splinters, stained with a reddish scum that might have been blood. Shakily, he walked over to the sink and rinsed the mess away, gritting his teeth against the sting of water in the scratches. Carelessness. The shakiness got worse, forcing him to brace himself on the edge of the sink; greyness encroached on the edges of his vision. No! I won't ... not like this! And then there was only the dark, and a terrible emptiness, and the knowledge that somewhere nearby were shadow-shapes that carried the menace of still greater loss and pain.
By 0945 the diving bell had been winched into position above the hatch, and a detail of crewmen, under the supervision of Chief Sharkey, were working on the final preparations, stowing oxygen cylinders and camera equipment and checking the cable drum.
"Hey, Kowalski! Watch what you're doing with that!" the Chief exclaimed, as a cylinder tilted in the crewman's inattentive grasp and nearly fell.
"Sorry, Chief." Kowalski took a firmer grip on his burden. "What's the big hurry anyway?"
"That's the Admiral's business." Sharkey glared at all the men in the detail. "So jump to it, you hear? The Admiral's not going to be too happy if he comes down here and we aren't ready."
"Admiral? Admiral!" The voice was very far away, but when he focused on it the darkness lifted a little. Slowly, he raised his head, realizing that he was crouching in a corner of the laboratory floor. Crane knelt beside him, frowning in concern.
"Admiral, what happened?"
"I don't ... know. I just ...." Nelson could not find the words to describe what he had felt. He rubbed his temples with a hand that still would not stop trembling.
"It's getting to you too, huh?"
"I guess so." He levered himself to his feet, shrugging off Crane's helping hand. "What are you doing here, anyway?"
"You ordered me to search the ship, remember? I saw the door open, and I thought I'd better check it out."
Nelson started to shake his head, and stopped the movement just in time. Memory was coming back, and with it the knowledge that reality was not much better than the waking nightmare that had engulfed him. "Then where's the rest of your search party?"
Crane's frown intensified. "I had to leave them at the last intersection. It doesn't make sense, but I don't think even the threat of court-martial would have gotten them to follow me any farther." He did not seem very comfortable being in the laboratory himself.
"Then you'd better get back to them. I want Letts found!"
"Aye, sir. But I'm getting you to Sick Bay first."
"What for? I'm fine now."
"You don't look fine," Crane told him bluntly.
"Nonsense." He would have liked nothing better than to hide in the privacy of his cabin until this was over, but that would have been worse than useless. "I'll see you in the Missile Room in about --" Nelson glanced at his watch, and then looked again, not believing what he was seeing; he had lost over an hour to the darkness. "In five minutes."
"You're going ahead with the dive?" Crane's voice slid a couple of notes up the scale in disbelief.
"Of course. We have to get to the bottom of this."
"Admiral, I don't think you should. Not right now, at least."
"Can you think of a better time?" Nelson headed for the door.
"Don't you think ..." Crane's voice trailed away as he followed.
"Engineering, ahead dead slow." Morton's voice crackled over the intercom. "All stop!"
Nelson strode over to the nearest wall microphone and clicked it on. "Control, this is Nelson. Are we in position?"
"Yes, sir. Right over the trench."
"Good. Now hold her there."
Somehow, Nelson managed to stow the microphone on his first try, but Crane did not appear much reassured by this evidence of his fitness for duty.
"What's that sound?"
"How should I know, Ski? Probably just an airlock in the pipes. Now hop to it! The Admiral's gonna be here any minute!"
Down in the darkness, Letts turned the inlet valve another half-turn, and smiled. Already, salt liquid death was pouring in; it lapped at the soles of his shoes, rising to touch his ankles with its welcome chill. Soon, now. Soon it'll all be over. He reached for the crowbar. Now?
The crowbar swung, and sparks fizzed across the darkness, tracing arcs of dazzling blue-white. Not too much. Just enough to be sure the cable shorts when the water gets to it.
In spite of everything, the diving bell was very nearly ready when the Admiral came through the Missile Room hatch with the Captain at his heels. Even so, Sharkey was hardly surprised at the grim expression on the Admiral's face. He was hoarse from chivvying the men to do what they would have normally have done almost without needing to be told, and the job was still not done to his entire satisfaction.
"Ready, Chief?" the Admiral asked.
"Just another couple of minutes, sir," Sharkey replied, bracing himself for a reprimand.
"Then get on with it," was all Nelson said.
Sharkey stared at him for a moment. Something was very wrong; the Admiral ought to have been yelling, or at least lashing him with sarcasm. "Uh -- aye-aye, sir," he managed at last. The Skipper's not happy about this at all. And the Admiral -- the Admiral looks like he had a worse night than I did. Stifling his own unease, Sharkey went back to work. After a moment, the Admiral pulled up a packing case and sat down; the Skipper started prowling about the room, hands locked behind his back, peering at instrumentation.
Five minutes later, the diving bell was ready to go. Sharkey took one last look around the interior, then turned to give the Admiral a hand up. Nelson clambered inside without a word; after a moment, Sharkey shrugged and closed the hatch. It was not a morning for pleasantries. The winch motors whined into action, and the bell started to rise. Sharkey signaled to Kowalski to start the opening of the big hatch doors that made the inner entrance to the airlock.
"No! Don't open it!" The Captain's yell froze everyone in place.
"Skipper?" Kowalski's hand hovered over the lever.
"Are you trying to get us all killed?" Crane's voice shook. "Look -- look at the board! The airlock's already flooded! If you opened it now, we'd have the whole Pacific Ocean in here!"
"Flooded! That can't be right!" With a sick feeling in his guts, Sharkey went over to check the board. The Skipper was right; the outer hatch was open to the sea. That in itself was not too bad, though strictly against operating procedure; the air-pressure would have stopped the water from flooding Seaview completely even from that large hatch, though the idea of even a partial flood in the Missile Room was bad enough. What was worse was the cluster of red lights at the bottom of the board -- short circuits. There was damaged cabling down there, and that meant ....
"Secure the bell!" the Captain ordered. Sharkey jumped to obey; everyone else seemed to be still frozen. The switch clicked over, and the bell plunged down. Seconds after it crashed to the deck, smoke puffed from the control console. Sharkey grabbed for the circuit breaker -- too late. Sparks fountained from the console, and flames licked up. "Get that out!" yelled the Skipper, as Sharkey jumped out of range, smelling singed hair and calcined insulation. With a horrible, slow-motion clumsiness, two crewmen reached for the nearest fire-extinguisher, collided, and fell in a tangle of limbs. On the far side of the room, another crewman slumped down and began to weep, hiding his face in his drawn-up knees. Then the ship lurched, tilting the diving bell on its base.
The Skipper was yelling orders again, but Sharkey could not make out the words for the shrilling of the fire-alarm. More acrid smoke billowed from the console, and a series of small explosions fizzed along the power-lines as one circuit-breaker after another overloaded. Why the Admiral doesn't use better breakers in his designs I'll never know. Sharkey started to move towards the extinguisher, but the slant of the floor sent it sliding away from him, and he went sprawling. Two of the men made a break for the hatch, heedless of the Skipper's shouted orders. Seaview lurched again, her nose dipping dangerously downwards. Sharkey struggled to his feet, clinging to a teetering equipment rack, and saw that the Skipper, propped against the escape hatch console, had picked up a microphone. A moment later, the Red Alert siren blared. No use. No use at all. Sharkey gripped the rack, not caring that the sharp metal bit into his palms and fingers. We're finished. Seaview's going down. Down, down into the abyss, into the dark.
Then the handle on the diving-bell door began to turn.
In the Control Room, Morton leaned over the back of the helmsman's seat, wrestling with controls that would not answer. The man on duty, slump-shouldered and with a spreading stain of sweat darkening the back of his overalls, made only token efforts to help. The planes were locked, and Seaview was heading into the abyss -- not fast, yet, but inexorably. The Captain's voice, crackling over the intercom, was raw with hysteria and not making any sense that Morton could discern. General quarters? What use was that to the already panicked crew? Sparks, weaving inexpertly along the rocking deck, had come forward to sound the klaxon. Caught up in his struggle with the jammed controls, Morton let him do it.
"Collision screens!" someone yelled. "Get the screens -- we're going to hit!"
Was that the Skipper's order? Mine? It's like the chain of command just fell to pieces in my hands. One minute we were fine, and now .... Morton watched as the screens started to close, dimly thankful that someone still had some sense of self-preservation. There was nothing to see, anyway -- only dark water and a deeper, looming darkness. The screens gave an illusion of protection, but he knew that it was only illusion.
The handle slipped in Nelson's hands, and the bell tilted again, then thumped back into place, sending another stab of pain through his temples. Almost ... got it. What's ... happening out there? He tried the handle again, and moved it for half a turn before he realized he was turning it the wrong way. Got to get ... get out of here. He flung himself at the lever again, grappling it with both hands, leaning his weight against the door, and it gave way at last, sending him tumbling out. Instinct took over for a moment, then, and he rolled across the deck and came to his feet well clear of the tottering menace that the unsecured bell had become. What's happening?
Smoke drifted everywhere, and the winch control console was well alight; every board that was still working at all showed malfunction and danger. A cacophony of alarms made it impossible to hear what anyone might have been saying, though Crane, white-faced and wild-eyed by the escape hatch, seemed to be trying to use the microphone. And the tilt of the floor could only mean .... The missile firing panels still seemed to be in order. It would have been so easy to add a little more destruction, a little more death. Why should Seaview's crew be the only ones to die? Angrily, Nelson pushed that thought away. He had spent too long already with those dark thoughts, and he knew they were not his own. "I won't. Not again. And the others won't either! We're stronger than that -- we have to be!" It was only when he felt the hoarseness in his throat that he realized he had been shouting the words aloud. A fire extinguisher lay at his feet, unused; no-one had even pulled out the release pin. He righted it, fumbled out the pin and lifted it to aim at the worst of the fire. Cold clouds of carbon dioxide vapour streamed from the nozzle, starving the flames, but the fire had a good hold; he could feel the heat sucking the moisture from his skin.
Then Sharkey was there, plying another extinguisher. The flames paled, dwindling, and finally died, leaving the blackened ruin of the console still smoking. The fire-alarm cut out, but the General Quarters klaxon blared on.
"Thanks, Chief." Nelson put down his almost-empty extinguisher and wiped his brow with his sleeve.
"You're welcome, sir." Sharkey looked uncomfortable, rubbing his hands together.
"Well?" Nelson demanded.
"I'm sorry, sir. That has to be the sloppiest fire-detail I ever saw."
"Never mind that now. What's going on?"
"I think we know what happened to our missing man, Admiral." Crane's voice was bleak as he stowed the microphone and came over to join them. "Someone deliberately flooded the airlock -- probably damaged the conduits down there, too."
"So what's the bad news?"
"We're going down. Engineering won't answer bells, and I can't make out what's happening in the Control Room."
"Then why don't you --" Nelson began.
Then the deck bucked, throwing him off balance; Seaview shuddered from bow to stern, and the ugly noise of scraping, buckling metal drowned out every other sound. The lights went out, replaced a moment later by the red emergency lamps. In the quiet that followed, broken only by the creaking of over-stressed hull-plates, Crane picked himself up, went back to the microphone, and said quite calmly, "Damage Control, report!"
Nelson got up more slowly, offering a hand to Sharkey, who took it without a word.
"Leaks in frames 32 and 37," came from the intercom. "Damage to generators three and four."
"Can we get to the surface?"
"Negative, Skipper. We can't blow ballast."
"Then get on with the repairs."
"Aye-aye, sir. We'll do what we can."
It was a normal enough exchange, but the man on the other end sounded dispirited, and Crane was frowning as he clicked the microphone again.
"Control Room, this is the Captain. What's our situation?"
"A mess," Morton responded.
"I'm not reading you very well, Mr. Morton. What was that again?"
Good, Nelson thought. Lee's got his wits about him, at least. But how long can he hold together if the crew won't pull their weight?
"We're ... on a ledge, it looks like," Morton said after a pause. "Stern's hanging over -- it wouldn't take much to tip us off again. Depth ... depth fifteen hundred feet, but there's at least another twenty thousand down to the bottom of the trench."
"Then we'd better make sure we don't fall off," said Crane. "Now listen; I want repair parties on those leaks, but the generators have priority. I want the ballast pumps operating as soon as possible." He stopped, then, and ran a shaky hand through his hair, raking it into disorder, before he stowed the microphone. "Admiral, what are we going to do now?"
We could open those airlock hatches and get it over with. We can't win now -- this would be bad enough with the crew at their best. "I think," Nelson said aloud, "that it's about time we dealt with the real problem."
"Which one? Admiral, right now we've got so many problems I don't know where to start!" Sharkey blurted.
"I know, Chief, I know. It isn't going to be easy, but I think we can do it. Lee, I want you to do what you can to keep the repair crews up to scratch. I'm going down to the laboratory to destroy those specimens."
"The specimens?" Crane looked blank for a moment, and then his face cleared. "Of course -- that has to be it. All the trouble started after we brought them aboard."
"It all fits," Nelson confirmed. "You, Dr. Swinburne, Stroby, Letts ... whatever it is, it went after the diving party first. And the feeling in the lab ... it comes and goes, but ...." He shook his head, still unable to put it into words. "It's spreading out from there, like an infection."
"What does it want?"
"I'm not sure it wants anything, except maybe our deaths. It's ... aware, but not intelligent in any way we understand."
"Aware," Crane echoed, his eyes haunted, "and very unhappy. Admiral, I can't let you go back down there."
"I don't have much of a choice." And I don't need an argument. I haven't the energy for it.
"I saw what it did to you before," Crane pointed out. "You've been up all night; you're practically out on your feet. I'm sorry, Admiral, but I can't let you do this."
"Do you have a better idea?"
"As a matter of fact, I do." Crane managed a smile. "We'll do it together."
"Lee --" Nelson started to protest.
"Sure," Sharkey said recklessly. "You go and deal with those things in the lab, and I'll ..."
"You'll see that the repair crews get those ballast pumps working," Crane told him. We're counting on you, Chief."
"Aye, aye." Sharkey's face worked for a moment, and produced a faint semblance of his goofiest grin. "You can always count on me, Skipper."
"Let's go," Nelson said then. There was a strange feeling around the corners of his mouth that he recognized, eventually, as the beginning of an answering smile.
"So we destroy the specimens," Crane said in the corridor. "Just like that? What with? Poison?"
"Too slow," said Nelson. "I think ... I think we have to take them all at once, or we'll never break free."
Death. Death in exile, far from everything we know. Death ... only death. Death in the dark deeps.
"Ugh." Crane stopped in his tracks, rubbing his temples. "It's getting worse."
"I know. We'll need ... sonic guns, I think."
"But that'll smash every piece of glass in the room!"
Nelson sighed, thinking of his own specimens and equipment. "Better that than lose Seaview with all hands!"
"All right." Crane swung left, into the armoury corridor, reaching into his pocket for the key. Nelson had to lengthen his stride to catch up; something warned him that it might be best not to meet Crane on his way back with the weapons. His own reactions were untrustworthy enough, and he dared not take chances. They went into the arms locker side by side, selected two heavy-duty sonic rifles, and came out still side by side.
"Now," Nelson said, "we won't get more than once chance at this. You take the top row, and I'll take the bottom -- and stay well back!"
"Right," Crane said grimly. "And if this doesn't work?"
Nelson let that go unanswered. They had rounded the corner into the laboratory corridor, and the whisperings of death and despair were so loud that he could hardly hear his own thoughts. Crane was grey-faced and perspiring like a man in mortal agony, but he kept walking, cradling his weapon, fixing his eyes on the open laboratory door.
No! We do not die yet! Not until all else is dead! No! Nelson stumbled as the protest exploded inside his skull. The weapon wobbled in his hands; he tightened his grip and kept going, half-blind, until he brushed against the door-frame of the laboratory.
The tanks were all colour and glitter, lurid as a Christmas shopping mall, but the darkness that flowed from them was almost visible.
No! We are eternal! We cannot die thus!
Death! Death and destruction and the loss of everything dear.
It was the nightmare again; he was watching, immobile, helpless to prevent the end of everything. At his side, Crane slumped against the door, with nothing in his eyes but darkness.
"No," Nelson whispered. "No. I won't let this happen." Slowly, as if his flesh was brittle stone that might crack at a sharp movement, he brought his hand up and touched his friend's arm. "Lee. It's time."
"Admiral?" Crane's face was a marble mask, blind-eyed, but his lips moved.
Together, they brought up the long barrels of the sonic guns, and fired.
Glass turned white and crystalline, then bowed out and fell. From the broken tanks came a gush of water like black blood, and a scream that did not die with the echoes of the blast, for it made no sound. And then there was only the blackness.
"It was ... ancient," Nelson said, a long time later. He leaned back in his chair, watching the blue-white dance of the water outside the nose window. "Some kind ... some kind of group sentience. The whole reef ... not just a new species, but a completely unknown form of life."
Crane shifted his perch on the edge of the table. "I wish it had stayed unknown," he said somberly. "I still think we should have fired a missile at the whole thing."
"And spread its spores over half the ocean?" Nelson shook his head. "Some things are better left alone."
"And if the next research party isn't so lucky?"
"There won't be another one. I'll make sure of that when I send in my report." Nelson turned from the ocean, then, and looked back down the length of the Control Room at his crew. "Anyway, luck had nothing to do with it."
"When I think what nearly happened ...." Crane shuddered.
"Don't. You run a good crew, Captain, and we wouldn't have got through this without them. Think about that."
And finally, reluctantly, Crane smiled, and raised his coffee-cup in a mock toast to the men of the Seaview.
Copyright 1997 Rachel Howe
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