There is Light Below
“What’s with these questions?” The guy on the phone told me it would be an offshore sat job. I was excited to finally dive something other than water towers and sewage tanks.
They sell you on the expensive certification course with these gorgeous photos of divers in Kirby Morgan Superlite 17s doing welding on an oil rig support surrounded by a radiant blue expanse.
Shit, sign me up. That’s what 19 year old me thought when I got started. The pictures looked like I’d be paid to do what I go on vacation for. The reality turned out to be somewhat less glamorous.
This would in fact only be my second open ocean dive in three years. If it was for real, anyway. The voice on the other end of the phone turned out to be some kid not much older than I was when I got certified.
“Mental health. The site you’ll be diving is...unconventional, and the conditions will be stressful. The Institute felt it would be wise to screen out anybody who might snap under the pressure. Both literal and figurative. The fellow I worked with before is in a nuthouse now, so don’t take that question lightly. We want you to know what you’re getting into.”
He identified himself only as Zach. No last name. Likewise, his employer was simply “The Institute”. Either some serious skull and dagger shit, or somebody was yanking my chain.
The questions at the bottom of the multiple choice sheet read “Are you a substance dualist? (Do you believe in immaterial phenomena such as ghosts, demons, banshees, etc.)”
I don’t pry into what people believe. When you’ve gotta spend weeks slowly offgassing with three other guys in a deckside deco chamber, bringing up politics, religion or sports is simply poor survival strategy.
Sex is the fourth one on that list if we’re talkin’ Thanksgiving dinner or something, but this line of work is basically all male, so political correctness never enters into it.
Dirty jokes are A-OK. Arguments over anything near and dear to your heart? Probably a bad idea unless you’re on the last day of the deco cycle.
I checked “no” and slid the sheet over to him. He scanned my answers, nodded approvingly and packed it into a manilla envelope. “Zach” whipped out a flip phone. Hadn’t seen one of those in years.
“He’s ideal. No red flags that I can see. What? Oh, certainly. Professor Travigan’s death was hard on all of us, though. Great friend to me as well, thank you for the kind words. Is the boat ready? Excellent. Where are you now? Swing around and pick us up, then.”
A minute or so later, an archaic but well maintained car turned the corner and came to a stop at the curb. I’m a car guy as well as a diving gear guy so it didn’t take me long to narrow it down.
“1941 Pontiac Torpedo, isn't it?” The kid looked baffled. “I don’t know. I guess? Maybe? On the outside at least.” He climbed into the rear seat, as did I.
The windshield and both front side windows were tinted. A barrier between the backseat and the front obscured the driver but an intercom system allowed him to speak to us.
“Welcome, Mr. Cressman. We’re quite pleased to have found someone with your particular set of qualifications. Do not concern yourself with provisions. All necessary gear is waiting for you on the boat.”
I balked. “We’re leaving now? As in, right now?” Zach laughed. “No time like the present! Depending on which scientific paradigm you buy into, anyway.”
Weird guy. I began to have second thoughts until he withdrew a stack of twenties from under the seat. “The advance we agreed on. One quarter of what you’ll receive if everything goes as planned.”
That last part gave me the jeebs. If something “doesn’t go as planned” a thousand feet underwater, it’ll be a closed casket funeral. Very little humans do to earn a wage is as severely unnatural as trudging across the continental shelf.
Hot water supplied by hose from the diving bell pulsing through capillaries in their suit, peering out through an acrylic faceplate while breathing Heliox. Or Hydrox for the really deep dives.
More than once I’ve been seized by an intense feeling of how strange it was that a savannah dwelling ape should, by evolution and economic circumstance, come to be in such an environment.
Not unlike space, except that space is beautiful. Down there, impenetrable black fog envelops you. A bleak, starless expanse hinting at immense swimming masses, circling just beyond the reach of your lights.
I remarked that it was awfully quiet for a diesel. “Oh, it doesn’t run on petrol”. Come to think of it, I hadn’t seen an exhaust and when we pulled away from the curb there was a subtle electric whine instead of the familiar flatulent grunt of a conventional gas engine. “Oh rad, this thing runs on batteries?” He furrowed his brow, searching for words. “No, not batteries. The motor is certainly electric though.”
“Oh, so it’s a fuel cell then.” He shook his head and gestured over his shoulder. I looked behind me and in the space where I expected another set of seats there was instead row after row of jars containing some kind of glowing blue gas.
Clear tubing strung from jar to jar carried the gas to something resembling a glass pyramid with alternating layers of metal foil and cotton embedded inside of it.
One metal terminal protruded from the top layer, another from the bottom with an alligator clamp attached to each, one red and the other black. Cables leading from those terminals vanished through a hole in the floor. Going to the motor presumably.
“I’ve never seen anything like that.” Zach, busy texting, muttered “I’m sure that’s true.” The drive to the coast took roughly four hours. We stopped a few times for snacks and bathroom breaks.
I plied him for more info about the contraption in the back of the car but he just sat there texting. I felt mildly tempted to have a look under the hood while he was in the shitter, but thought better of it.
The ship was a real beaut. Forty foot catamaran, no sail oddly enough. The reason for that became apparent when we boarded. The rear of the ship was for the most part taken up with glass jars, filled with blue gas.
The cables, in this case, ran to a pair of electric boat motors. The main difference here was the presence of a ten foot metal antennae of some sort, resembling a tuning fork, folded neatly into an alcove in the floor.
I looked at Zach and raised an eyebrow. “Resonant vibration receiver”, he said matter of factly. “Tunes into the Earth’s vibrational frequency, uses harmonic resonance principles to extract useful energy from it. Not enough to run the motors directly but it’ll power the orgone accumulator. No shortage of that stuff when you’re at sea.”
The stack of bills in my jacket pocket kept me from backing away and running for it. Why the song and dance earlier about screening out wackadoos? Then again, I guess the real headcases don’t know they’re crazy. No idea what was actually powering those motors, but nor was I being paid to care.
“Zachary! You made it!” a grey haired portly man in an odd uniform emerged from the ship’s cabin. Zach embraced him, then did some strange handshake. “Is this the guy?” Zach slapped me on the back.
“Sure is. Highest negation potential we were able to find within his field. For the profiles we have access to anyway. I don’t anticipate running into any projections down there to be honest, but better safe than sorry. Let’s get underway, shall we?”
The motor sound was like a waterfall. Not really the sound of the motor per se, but the ocean’s howls of protest as it was chopped up by the whirling props.
The weather was nice and I savored the salty breeze as I watched the shoreline recede. I wondered how they’d react if I poked around a bit and found the battery bank I was certain they’d hidden somewhere on this tub. Fruitcakes.
“How far out are we?” The skipper throttled down the motors and fiddled with the nav console. “Six miles now. I suppose that’s far enough. Spin up the Philadelphia drive.” The what now? Zach entered the cabin and I followed. Conventional for a boat this size with a fridge, microwave, marine toilet/shower combo and fold-down table for meals.
...And a metal sphere about a foot in diameter with a tangled mess of flexible black hoses trailing from various points on its surface up through a chute in the ceiling. The parade of weird shit never ended with these guys.
Zack withdrew a key on a necklace from beneath his shirt. The skipper did the same. Both inserted their keys in a console next to the nav display and turned them in unison.
“You got the coordinates right?” Zach peered nervously at the skipper. “I don’t want a repeat of Tonga.” He scratched his head, looked sheepish and scanned the nav display one last time.
“I still say that was a software glitch. I triple checked though, we’re all set for displacement.” Oh. Displacement. Of course. Either the charade would break down shortly or they had some parlor trick prepared to spook me.
The metal sphere on the ceiling shuddered as some heavy mass inside suddenly began to spin. Aside from feeling the torque when it began, there was also a low pitched, barely audible hum.
“Four thousand RPMs. Ten thousand. Twenty six thousand RPMs. Amperage looks good. Displacement in ten on my mark. Mark.” Zach flashed a maniacal grin. The first of many. “Hold onto your nuts.”
I should’ve. When the ten seconds were up, everything kinda dropped out from under me. I puked up my breakfast and watched it billow away from me in a slowly spreading cloud of weightless spherical blobs.
The ship was still there but everything around it was an incomprehensible fractalized mess of kaleidoscopic facets. Like a funhouse mirror times a billion.
Suddenly we were back at sea. The puke, hanging in the air a moment ago, now fell and splattered the deck. When Zack saw it, he groaned. “That better not stain. I’ll get you a mop.” I stood dumbfounded, clutching my still quivering stomach, wide eyed and terrified.
“What the fuck was that!” Zack turned and took a second to realize what I meant. “The jump? Don’t worry about it. Saved us weeks of travel time! You know what they say about gift horses.”
That wasn’t going to cut it. “No, you tell me what the fuck that was.” I didn’t mean for it to come out so menacing but honestly I’ve never felt so shaken. He took it in stride. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, blah blah, you’ll know what I’m cleared to tell you and nothing more.
You might say that we’re collectors of lost technologies, forbidden arts, valuable secrets buried by the passage of time and unfavorable politics of the day. You’re still good to dive, I hope?”
I laid down in the cabin for the next hour, fighting to keep my insides on the inside. Holograms maybe? Or they’d slipped me drugs. But when? The more I asked the kid, the more he insisted I didn’t need to know that in order to dive. A reminder of the pay waiting for me after we returned to shore did a great deal to restore color to my face.
“How much Orgone is left?” I was up and about, prepping my dive gear while the two traded nonsense phrases. Glancing at the glass jars, the glow did seem to be dimmer now. “Damn, 34%. Did we really go that far? Oh well. Looks like we’ll get some use out of the accumulator after all.”
Zach sighed. “This is why I said we should have taken the vimana.” The skipper gestured dismissively, eyes wide. “Not with me piloting it. If you’re willing to set foot in something powered by Vril you’re braver than I am.”
The big aluminum tuning fork dealie folded up out of the floor, then extended telescopically another ten or so feet overhead. I felt a slight pressure on my inner ear as it activated. Curiouser and curiouser. If it really was all for show, they’d put quite a lot of money and work into making it convincing.
“This is the spot. Gear up, you two. This thing will take at least an hour to refill the jars, but you’ll have maybe half that time at depth. It’s deep enough that your bottom time will be fairly short according to my dive table."
The old fart knew more about diving than I would have guessed. Below 21 feet or so the pressure starts dissolving nitrogen from your air supply into your blood.
Takes time to force enough of it in there to be dangerous on the way up though. That’s what dive calculators are for. Tells you how long you have at a given depth before the nitrogen in your blood reaches unsafe levels. You can stay longer than that, if you have a deco chamber. But I didn’t see one on the boat.
“Any provision for decompressing?” The old man’s eyes lit up and he hurried into the cabin, returning with a duffle bag. “Inflatable model. Used only once before, works like a charm. The pump's in a separate bag, I’ll set it up while you’re down there.” I don’t gamble with my life and I said so. “No, you’ll set it up now. I’m not diving until I’m sure you have the means to return me to pressure if I need it.”
It was the work of twenty minutes to get the compressor, hose and inflatable sac hooked up and confirm it was in good working order. I worried I might’ve alienated them somewhat by the demand, but the saying in my line of work is that there are two kinds of divers: The bold ones, and the old ones. There are no old, bold ones. If you don’t play it safe, you don’t last long.
“The sticker says last inspection was two years ago. You’re supposed to get it checked every year. Ever heard of the Byford Dolphin incident? Pressure differentials do not fuck around.”
He seemed to take it personally and fell all over himself to assure me the seals were immaculate. Zach was less apologetic. “If you want to go back, we can take you soon enough. That’ll mean another displacement event, though.”
Way to call my bluff. ‘Displacement’ event, huh? Fuck that. I’ll take my chances in the water. I suited up and walked the kid through his dive checks. Made me nervous that he was so green. When asked, he produced a PADI card for open water diving. Good enough for me but only barely. They never told me I’d be babysitting.
“You gonna clue me in to what we’re looking for down there?” He tested his regulator. It puffed satisfactorily. “Oh, don’t worry. You’ll know it when you see it. We’d go by sub except it’s being serviced at the moment.”
Oh, they have a sub. Naturally. But then, if they have a fucking mystery space-boat of light and wonder, I supposed a sub wasn’t such a stretch. Who are these guys exactly?
Splashdown was invigorating. The water was some of the warmest I’d ever dove in. The vis was astonishing too, easily 200 feet. This is the kind of water I pay good money to dive in when I’m not working and kicked myself for leaving my camera at home. Then again, the vague sense of what these guys were involved in led me to suspect they would’ve confiscated it in the car.
Zach immediately headed down and as I turned to follow, I at once understood what he meant earlier by “unconventional dive site”. The details were hazy but I could make out a shallow ravine below, lined with corals.
And nested within that ravine, a sprawling complex of glass chambers connected by enclosed passages. The shock nearly made me spit out my reg.
We had to stop a few times on the descent so the kid could equalize. I took the opportunity to soak in the beauty of it. Architecturally, the buildings somewhat resembled ornate Victorian greenhouses.
Whoever designed the place clearly valued aesthetics and wanted a nice view of the surrounding ocean. One of the structures within view even had trees growing inside.
A seafloor arboretum? Surely now I’ve seen it all. Again I reached for my absent camera. Oh well. Nobody would believe the photos weren’t doctored anyway, I thought. Sour grapes.
We came up under the floor of the nearest structure. They were all elevated somewhat off the seafloor on pilings. I could see the corner of what must be the ballast tray those pilings attached to protruding from the sand.
So these things were weighed down by sand. They must’ve floated them out here, sucked up sand from the bottom by dredge pump to weigh them down, then connected them to each other with the passages.
A project like this would’ve employed no small number of engineers. How could it have been kept a secret? I could see why it didn’t show up on sonar, situated down in this little ravine as it was.
Strange feeling, looking at the placid surface of the water from below, when you’re a good hundred or so feet below the actual surface. Like a rippling mirror. We poked our heads up through it and took off our masks.
I smelled the air and, once convinced it was fresh, signaled for Zach to remove his regulator. He had a coughing fit. “Salt water down the wrong pipe, huh? God damn would you look at this place.”
We were relatively deep as conventional scuba diving goes but shallow enough that, with a bit of squinting, I could see the surface undulating gently far overhead. It cast down the most entrancing patterns of light on the floor. I set my watch to timer mode, and entered 30 minutes.
“What is this place? Who built it and how come I’ve never heard of it? Or can’t you tell me.” Zach eased off his tanks and set them against the wall. Only when he’d removed as much of his gear as he intended to did he answer.
“The Institute has its fingers in many different projects. And has been around for longer than you’re liable to believe. Back in the seventies, there was something of a boom for manned undersea exploration. At its peak there were dozens of seafloor labs in operation around the world. Sixty nine were built, all told.”
I knew that much. The Navy’s Sealab program. Jacques Cousteau’s Conshelf projects. Tektite. I set my own tanks down next to his, glad to be rid of the weight. The BCD was the worst offender in that respect but the belt of lead weights for buoyancy neutralization was also a painful burden out of water. Would there be a welcoming party? Didn’t look like it.
“Officially the Navy’s man in the sea program ended after sabotage led to a death during Sealab III. In fact, they continued in secret. Now Naval submarine supply depots dot the continental shelf, overcoming the modern nuclear submarine’s only significant endurance limitation: The food supply.” I’d never heard any such thing. But then I didn’t know a place like this existed until today, either.
“The Institute dabbled in this pursuit as well. We’re standing inside the results of that endeavor. A series of smaller experimental habitats built up the experience necessary to eventually construct this facility in 1976. Our interest was in the beneficial physiological and emotional effects of living under pressure.
That’s why the whole facility is ambient pressure. Same inside as out. Hence why none of the structure is cylindrical or spherical and there’s plenty of big flat windows, yet it doesn’t implode. The only significant stresses are buoyancy related.”
Like an immense, live-aboard diving bell. Not so different from that coral reef research base that Florida International University operates in Key Largo. Just a thousand times the size. No single building looked to be taller than perhaps three stories, there were just so many of them. Absolutely unprecedented so far as I knew.
“Under moderately increased atmospheric pressure, due to the increase in available oxygen, wounds heal faster. Sleep is more restful and regenerative. There is a slight, pleasant intoxication called the martini effect which makes you jovial, cooperative and slow to anger. Except toward those not under the same influence.”
We entered a grand lobby with those tacky white egg-shaped chairs strewn about and curvilinear couches following the contours of the outer wall, with ugly orange cushions.
Wall paneling in most places was beige with a red stripe running along the top. I would discover soon after that this stripe indicated by color coding which portion of the complex we were in.
“As was discovered by the crew of the Tektite habitat, the difference in state of mind between those under pressure and the topside support crew who weren’t created severe friction. The Tektite crew felt topside did not understand the day to day difficulties of living and working undersea.
They became insular and familial with one another, but increasingly hostile to anyone else. This was the unforeseen psychological dimension of undersea living. Some felt it lent itself very well to colonization, as it would intensify the desire for independence from land.”
The picture became a bit more clear. “So you dropped the big bucks to build this place and populate it with your Institute loonies only for them to stop returning your calls.”
Zach pried at a rusted switch. As it no longer seemed operable, he asked me to help him force the door. Putting my shoulder into it, between us it was easy work. The sliding doors made me smirk. Very “Star Trek”, except that they were woodgrain.
“That’s it in a nutshell. They went their own way. Unfortunately we’d built a network of torpedo turrets to defend this place from outside interests, making it impossible to take it back from our wayward comrades.
The lights, heaters, life support, dehumidifiers and whatnot are all powered by a single vril staff adapted to output AC. The Institute doesn’t have many of those, so when these fuckers ran off with one of ‘em it was a severe blow.”
All of that just rolled out of his mouth as if I had any clue what a Vril staff is. I didn’t ask for clarification as I anticipated it’d just be more balls to the wall insanity, which I have very little patience for.
The corridor linking this building to the next was quite like some I’ve seen in public aquariums, for visitors to walk through and take photographs. Except of course this particular aquarium was inside out. Mucky patches of marine growth coated the exterior such that plenty of light got in, but it was tough to get a clear view outside.
“Does anyone still live here?” I hadn’t seen anyone, but lights and life support seemed to be working. “No idea. Part of what I came to ascertain. You’re here for your diving expertise. And as a negator. Don’t ask, the more you know about that the less useful you are to me.”
I didn’t care, so I didn’t ask. This structure was round, perhaps a hundred feet across with a squat domed roof. Reinforcing ribs made of what looked like rusty brass radiated from the top down the curvature of the dome, then down the walls to the floor. Holding down the immensely buoyant air inside, rather than resisting pressure.
Much of it was heart rendingly beautiful. The Navy habitats I’d seen photos of were all ugly utilitarian cylinders with tiny portholes and squat little legs elevating them up off the seabed. This place was a work of art, both by comparison and on its own merits.
Here and there, hydroponic planters supported immense ferns and a variety of flowers. Some did, anyway. In others, all the plants were wilted and brown. Depending on which of them still had working pumps to bring them fresh water.
I assumed that’s why there were bugs. Flies mostly, zipping about our heads. And why there was a bug zapper hanging from the ceiling. Didn’t expect to see one of those down here.
I chuckled at all those little flies mindlessly circling the glowing blue light, closer and closer until a blinding white arc of electricity leapt out and fried them. This module must have been a public meeting place. Something like a park.
Benches situated around the planters suggested idle time spent chatting about whatever weird shit residents of an undersea complex would discuss. Mermaid titties? Cthulu? I laughed, prompting Zach to look at me quizzically.
Through the next corridor was an oval chamber. This one looked to be set up for yoga. The floor was lined with padded mats. A faded poster on the wall depicted various colored symbols arranged vertically against the figure of a cross legged man.
“Seven tips for aligning your chakras!” It said. The bullet points below were too small to read from this distance and I didn’t care for yet more hippie claptrap just then.
The next section was disc shaped. Mostly opaque save for large round windows arranged in a circle around the upper half. I checked my watch. 22 minutes remaining. “What are we looking for exactly? This place is derelict.”
Zach flipped through a set of books on a shelf under the poster. “I didn’t come here to give you a tour of the place. Keep your wetsuit on. There’s a reel of magnetic tape someplace that we need to return with.”
Sounded about right. I remembered my dad owning a reel to reel music player, he was big into audio gear and had a hell of a record and 8-track collection. But I guessed the reel would more likely contain data in this case, if it was important enough to go to all this trouble to retrieve.
Knocking on the glass I discovered it to be acrylic instead. Should’ve guessed. No sense in building so many windows into a place like this out of anything that’s easy to shatter.
The marine grime was absent on this side of the hull, affording a fairly unobstructed view of countless squat little buildings in the distance. More of the complex. No way to see it all in the 18 minutes left before we’d have to head back up.
“Here we go. This one’s got a map.” Zach folded a brittle, tattered map out of the book and examined it. After a few seconds he pinpointed whatever part of this gargantuan network he expected to find the tape in and we set off.
On the way I spotted little white spherical device I recognized as Weltron 8-track player. My dad had the same one. Mom wanted to offload it at a garage sale once and it set off a shouting match that lasted for hours.
I paused to look at the tapes. The soundtrack from “Xanadu”, and “Age of Aquarius” by The 5th Dimension. Seemed appropriate. “No dawdling, it’s quite a ways and we’re low on time.”
Fuckin’ taskmaster all of a sudden! I reflected on the fat green stacks waiting for me, bit my tongue, and followed him through a set of double doors into the next module.
This one was set up as a greenhouse. They all looked the part but this one actually was filled with plants. Overgrown to the point that it was tough trekking through all of it. My dive knife was sorely inadequate, what I really could’ve used was a machete.
The air was humid and smelled odd. “They must keep the CO2 and moisture higher in here for the plants. Strictly as a supplemental food supply. They’d need a hundred times as much for it to be any help with life support.”
There were tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce, carrots, all manner of herbs and what looked to be the greasy brown remains of various fruits and vegetables having long since fallen to the floor and decomposed.
After that we passed through what looked to be a mess hall, a school, a medical center the shelves of which were lined with “naturopathic remedies” and differently colored crystals, then what looked to be a marine biology lab.
Various skeletonized remains of sea creatures lay at the bottom of their respective tanks, the water hazy and discolored. Poor things simply perished with nobody to feed them. A projector cast an image on the wall of what I recognized to be an anglerfish.
Grotesque mouth full of sharp little teeth, beady black eyes and the light on the end of the stalk that it uses to lure in whatever’s dumb enough to fall for that. I’d also read some disturbing shit online about how they mate, come to think of it.
Finally we arrived at the module Zach identified earlier on the map. The door hung ajar, but the rim around the opening was lined with chunky powered locks. Very promising. The sign overhead said “Inward is the only way out.”
Cryptic hippie dippie Zen garbage. Yet inside were massive computers. Not what I’d browse the web on but like, floor to ceiling, reel to reel computers. Dusty old relics that were shockingly still running.
I picked up a binder sitting atop one of them. The first page headline read “Psycho-isolating properties of seawater.” What? I read on. “The radiation blocking qualities of water have long been known, and utilized for the safe storage of nuclear waste.
However it is theorized by our pataphysicists that it also acts as a barrier to psychic transmissions, including the ever-present cacophany of billions of human brains which, on the surface, stifle the discovery and development of latent psychic abilities by gifted individuals.”
My eyes rolled out of my skull. The next page was titled “NDE logs”. I had to read a bit further to discover that it stood for “Near Death Experience”. Astral travel, casper the friendly ghost, that sort of thing.
While Zack shuffled through reels of tape looking for the one we came to get, I browsed what seemed to be the ravings of lunatics. It was set up like a spreadsheet with the names of various patients, the time of clinical death, duration of death, time of resuscitation and a brief summary of their experience.
Turning the page, I was confronted with a large molecular diagram. Beneath it read “The production of DMT by the brain at the time of death has been held up by skeptics as proof that NDEs are akin to the hallucinations experienced by recreational users of that substance.
It is posited here that DMT is a core component of the mechanism by which the soul is extricated from the brain at death, as a pataphysical pattern projected to the holographic substrate of the universe, where it is re-embodied.”
“Recreational use of that substance” would certainly explain a lot of what’s written here, I thought. Cooped up beneath the waves with only other fruitcakes for company, it was increasingly easy to see how things had gone wrong. The last bit was vaguely troubling for reasons I couldn’t quite nail down.
“I submit that supernormal doses of DMT coinciding with the periods of clinical death imposed for our NDE studies will sever the soul-brain connection entirely, permitting even those without spiritual training to immediately drop their vehicles and ascend to the next stage of human existence.”
I heard Zach cry out behind me. Turning to see if he’d found the reel, he was instead holding open the door to one of perhaps twenty small chambers arranged in two rows, one to either side of the structure.
“What is it? Weird 70’s porn? Hairy was just how they liked it back then kid, don’t-” I didn’t reach the punchline. As soon as I made my way over and saw what the commotion was about, my voice trailed off and I went cold.
Inside the little alcove was a severely decomposed corpse. Little more than a skeleton coated in flaky brown remnants of skin. He was strapped tightly into the chair at the wrists, ankles and chest, wearing what looked very much like a virtual reality headset.
Immense and clunky, each one suspended from an articulated boom above it. Each eye with its own little display. In this case what looked to be unusually small cathode ray tubes.
Stranger still, at the neck was a motorized injection mechanism. Two syringes, with tubes hanging from them, leading to reservoirs suspended from the same boom as the headset. Zach reached out and lifted it off the skull. “Don’t!” I motioned to stop him but he waved me off. “I need to know what they saw.”
On each of the little displays, magnified by its own polished crystal lens, was a crude three dimensional rendition of the structure we were in made out of faintly glowing green vectors. Why? For what possible reason?
One by one we opened the other alcoves. In every case, inside there were human remains strapped into a seat with an identical primitive VR headset on their heads. Had to be what the computers were for.
I boggled at the morbid spectacle. Meanwhile Zach pried the reel of tape out of the nearest computer, installed the one he’d been carrying until then and typed some commands into the terminal. I looked at my watch.
“Shit, we have to go. Just under ten minutes. I’ll have us do some deco stops on the way up, but if we go over by much we’ll need to use the…”
I halted mid-sentence, thinking back to the inflatable chamber on the boat. “Hey, how are we both gonna decompress?” Zach didn’t answer. “Hey kid? That chamber was pretty small. Do we both fit in there? Or-”
I woke up in a world of pain. My head spinning, my vision blurry and something warm and wet trickling down the side of my face. Blood? I hoped to god it wasn’t blood.
I tried to sit up but found I was strapped securely into the chair, within one of the alcoves. The former occupant lay in a stinking, crumpled heap just outside. Made some sense of where all the flies came from.
“What...What the fuck is this? Did you knock me out? What the fuck?” I could hear him hammering away at the keyboard just outside. “You little faggot! Let me out of here!” Not terribly persuasive. Zach appeared in the doorway.
“The data collected from all these separation events was corrupted. Magnetic tape degrades with time. This reel’s still good, though. Just need to record a new separation event to it and I’ll have what I came for.”
I scowled in a mixture of confusion and rage. “Separation? Magnetic...what? The fuck is this? You get in here and fucking let me out of this you scrawny little bastard!” He looked troubled, but resolute.
“Shhh. No tears, friend. Don’t make this harder for me than it already is. My hands are tied. Nearly a hundred billion was sunk into this place if you’ll forgive the pun.”
Pun? Institute? My vision cleared somewhat. I feebly tried to spit at him. “You fuck. You ratty little faggot turd. If I get out of here I’ll come for you.” He pinched my eyelids one at a time, inserting little plastic retainers which prevented me from closing my eyes when I tried.
Once those were in place, he lowered the VR headset into position, adjusting the straps so it fit my head snugly. Before me, a vector based stereo 3D model of my surroundings appeared in flickering green and black.
“The Institute understandably expects to see a return on that investment. From what I’ve seen, they’ll get it too. For all the grief these black sheep put us through, it appears they got up to some real next level shit down here! Don’t be afraid. If the results recorded here are legit, your adventure’s only beginning.”
He wedged a gag between my teeth. I tried and failed to bite him as he did so. Angular green text appeared in front of me. “Relax your body. Focus. Align your chakras, and repeat: “I am not my body. I am a soul who has a body.”
The text pulsated, then receded into the distance. Smaller text in the corner of my vision read “Inducing hypnosis”. The little monitors began to strobe.
“Turn it off!” I shouted, hopelessly muffled by the gag. The flashing was intensely painful and I couldn’t close my eyes to block it. I felt a needle press against my neck and, with a pinching sensation, penetrate the skin.
Soon after, the vectors began to swirl about, throbbing with energy. My mind raced. The vector room receded slowly. A little model meant to represent my body receded with it.
Then the second needle penetrated my neck. I whimpered. If the first was DMT, I had a good idea of what was in the second. My body felt hot, and my joints constricted.
The vector room, the distortions enveloping my vision, all of it began to fade and grow dark. I felt utterly at peace. Blackness enveloped me, but only briefly.
All of a sudden I found myself traveling down a tunnel. I couldn’t feel my arms or legs. Nothing more than thought, a kernel of pure awareness. I couldn’t believe it.
They were right. I’d never gone in for this sort of thing. The last time I’d been inside of a church was nearly a decade ago. But here it was, just like I’d always heard about.
It was ineffably beautiful. Nothing in my prior experience remotely compared. The light radiated outward from a distant point, the rays bathing me in a warm, comforting sensation. I faintly heard voices calling to me from within the light, urging me to come into it. Bliss overtook me. I raced ahead.
Near the end I could at last see the source of the radiant beams. The most beautiful woman imaginable, many times my size and clothed in a flowing white robe. Six soft white wings like those of a dove spread out from behind her.
She slowly extended her arms to me as if inviting embrace. My heart longed for it. The summation of every painful struggle in my life. Infinite gentleness and understanding.
Her symmetrical, breathtaking face loomed large before me as I drew near. Only now did her eyes open. Jet black with nothing like an iris or pupil. Her mouth then opened, revealing multiple concentric rows of sharp little teeth.