Take My Breath Away
“We’re here live with diving record hopeful River Haynes, as she readies to attempt the world’s deepest scuba dive for a third time. River, how you feeling about this attempt, considering how your last two attempts ended?” The reporter held the mic out to a wetsuit-clad woman as she pulled her blonde hair into a ponytail.
“Well,” River said, smiling tightly into the light of the camera. “You know, you learn a few things with each failure. And I think we’re in good shape this time. I feel really good about it.”
“Can you tell us a little about what it meant to prepare for something like this?”
“Well, it takes a lot of extreme training, you have to condition your body, especially your lungs, to manage the extreme pressures of a dive like this. It’s the ascent that’s the most dangerous, really.”
“Because of nitrogen decompression, right?”
River nodded. “Yeah, among other things.”
“Hey, River!” A man called from closer to the shoreline, waving her over. “Hey, come here, we need to talk!”
“Thanks guys,” River said and turned toward the voice of her sponsor.
“What’s up, Wade?” she asked tersely.
Wade West squinted against the bright sunlight from behind his aviators. “I just think you shouldn’t interact with the media too much right now.”
River frowned. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
Wade sighed. “Look, River, you’re a good kid. You work hard, you try hard, but I’ll be honest—BZ is a little…head-shy.”
River looked back at the handful of reporters. “Head-shy? Wade, what’s going on?”
“If this dive doesn’t go as planned…Buzz Zone is gonna pull out.”
River gaped at the mention of the energy drink company. “Pull out…they’re going to drop me?”
“Sorry, I just found out.”
“Jesus, you couldn’t have waited till after to tell me?”
“I figured a little extra incentive wouldn’t be a bad thing.”
River studied the man for a second. He could be a real ass, and was, most of the time. But they’d had one drunken night in Florida and okay yes, maybe it wasn’t entirely ethical to sleep with a sponsor’s rep to get a third chance at a record dive, but…this couldn’t be her last shot.
“What am I gonna do if they drop me?” she said desperately. “Those last two dives weren’t my fault, shit just kept happening.”
“Look, they’re trying to compete with other big names right now and they want to be backing someone with a better…success rate.”
River cursed under her breath. “And what about me?”
Wade shrugged. “You could always go back to teaching scuba in Florida.”
“That’s it? They pull out and…just like that, I’m done?”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Riv. We don’t have any other takers right now and there’s that up-and-coming girl from Taiwan…”
“Ugh, save it,” River complained. “Jesus, Wade, I’ll lose my apartment if they stop paying me.”
“Like I said, you could always go back to Florida.”
Someone handed River a sport bottle and she took a long drink of the water. “Christ, I thought today was gonna be a good day.”
Wade shrugged again. “Sorry, kid. Wish there was more I could do.”
“Is everybody here?” River asked, shielding her face with one hand from the sun and peering across the sand. “No missing support divers, no missing equipment?”
“Yep. Triple-checked it myself. Nobody’s missing, all the equipment is accounted for.”
River sighed. “Alright. One last shot. Better make it count.”
All told, the boat held something close to thirty people to assist with the dive. The water was a little choppier than normal. River kept an eye on the horizon, carefully watching a smattering of foreboding clouds.
It seemed she didn’t need to worry, though. The clouds stayed distant, and as the boat slowed over the spot where she was going to attempt her dive, she pulled on the rest of her gear and checked her supplies for the umpteenth time.
“Good luck, River,” Wade said not insincerely. “I know you can do it.”
Somehow, she didn’t feel any more reassured.
It was time to dive.
Two at a time, the team jumped into the water. River was last. She saluted the remaining team members on board and jumped.
River was long used to the cold of the Pacific Ocean, but today it seemed even colder, somehow. She shivered uncharacteristically.
After checking lines and supplies were in good shape, the team submerged.
The ocean held such a different, alien beauty beneath its surface. Visibility was clear enough and the sunshine speared beams of light through the aquatic world.
River took a moment to note a school of fish, then a manta ray leisurely gliding by.
There was a reason she’d chosen this spot, just off the coast of Japan. If nothing else, even if she failed for a third time, at least the marine life was spectacular. She was at home in the water—god knew she’d spent most of the last decade in it.
River propelled herself further down, toward the trenches. As she descended, there were fewer creatures around, and her visibility dimmed. The sun didn’t reach this place much. She clicked on her flashlight.
One of the reasons River had been so successful in the diving world—short of the failed record attempts—was her ability to descend more quickly than most divers. This was where her training and conditioning shined. The majority of her entourage floated above her in shallower water. And finally, she was alone in the deep water.
She had to be at least 200 meters down now. She could feel the pressure mounting outside her suit, and her lungs tensed in complaint.
A dark shape in the water, just outside the radius of her flashlight, caught her eye.
It was long, almost serpent-like, with a dorsal fin of spines.
An eel, maybe?
The sea creature had disappeared. River took deep, steadying breaths and descended another couple meters.
It was so dark now. Her flashlight barely helped. She wasn’t sure she’d even be able to find the depth marker.
River’s brain buzzed pleasantly, and she noted the first sign that her time was running out. She needed to find that marker, fast.
She beamed her flashlight around, looking for the telltale red flag.
As she passed under a rock formation, someone flipped on a light switch.
The water was suddenly clear, she could see. She looked up in shock as rays of sun filtered down through the deep water.
This is impossible.
A flurry of school fish rushed past her. Looking down, there appeared to be a path lined with pristine white stones. Following them with her gaze, she could only just make out some unusual rock formations in the distance.
They looked at lot like, well, a city.
I dove too far. I’m hallucinating. I need to go up.
Something struck her from behind, and she thudded against the rock wall. For a moment, she felt nauseous and fought back the urge to vomit. The blow knocked her helmet askew and water rushed against her face.
A black and silver spear was inches from her face, but her attention was not focused on it.
What the fuck is that…?
A man rose abreast in the water. He wore no kind of protective gear, no oxygen tank.
A wide, black, barbed ray fin framed his torso. Where his waist should have tapered to human genitalia and legs, she saw only undulating fins and an iridescent black…tail.
“You should not be here,” the man said.
He spoke. He spoke underwater.
And she heard him.
Panicked, she lunged sideways in the water.
In a swift motion that belied his size, the creature slammed the spear against the rock, blocking her.
Oh my god, I’m going to die down here. This thing is going to kill me.
Her gauges must have been off the charts. She looked up wildly for a sign, any sign, that her team was trying to signal her. She hyperventilated through her oxygen, unable to make herself stop. Nothing in this place made sense. She didn’t see a single silhouette even resembling a diver.
Forget failing a dive for a third time. Forget losing her apartment. Death wasn’t preferable to that.
The…merman? Was that what he was? He frowned and muttered something she didn’t quite hear.
He extended a hand, and for a moment, she thought he was offering a truce. But something bright and wild exploded from his fingertips instead, engulfing her. Her body went slack and she floated limply in the water.
Guess Buzz Zone will be dropping me after all… was her last, coherent thought. How absurd. The swirling black fins encroached on her vision and she lost consciousness.