One hundred feet down, the Arctic Ocean seems like the darkest place on earth. The little sunlight that could have reached this far is stopped at the surface by the thick layer of ice. Although, I have to remind myself as I return to work, it could have been even darker.
Telford, Gonzo, and myself had struggled for three hours to drill a hole wide enough to fit ourselves and our diving equipment, even though the ice is three feet thinner than it should be. The eggheads up above say that’s because of global warming, I say it’s just because summer’s almost here. What do I know? I’m only here to collect rocks. Well, technically, I’m here to do maintenance, but who cares what’s on my job description? I’ve been floating from gig to gig in Alaska for almost three years, and I’m more than happy to have a steady job, even if it is only for the winter.
The government put together this little field trip, assembling a team of scientists to study the effects of “climate change” (that’s what they call it now that they’ve figured out we’re all getting colder, not warmer) in the Arctic Circle. Apparently the way they studied it was by living in a bunch of pre-fabbed huts on a big chunk of ice, and floating around for six months. Seemed like a bunch of crock to me, but most of the guys were nice enough, and they were willing to pay well for someone to come along and make repairs to their equipment as they went along, so who was I to complain?
Of course, this is the government we’re talking about here, so it wasn’t all bleeding-heart, save-the-earth type of stuff. Apparently, they were convinced there was a bunch of oil and other minerals hidden under the ice, and once it all melted, they would be able to come along and mine all the goodies out. Of course, the government wanted to know for sure, so they had sent a geologist along with us to find out. So long as you buy into that global warming crap, it’s actually pretty typical government thinking: let the cars spew oil fumes until all the arctic ice melts, then look where the ice used to be for more oil to put in the cars. It’s exactly why I don’t vote.
Anyway, that geologist they sent in is the whole reason I’m on this dive. They sent the guy to get samples from the ocean floor, so you’d think it would be logical to get someone who could actually dive to the ocean floor; but Jim Franklin is pushing three hundred pounds, and even if he was able to dive, he doesn’t know the first thing about it.
He planned to send in his research assistant, Gonzo, to do the dives, but I didn’t want her to go alone. I’m a pretty good diver after two stints in the Navy, and I was raised to step in and help whenever I can, so I volunteered to join her.
Of course, Gonzo herself was a good enough reason to sign up. She was beautiful, with dark skin and black hair that went well past her shoulders. She was strong, both physically and emotionally, with an independent streak that the other guys on base found intimidating, but I found attractive. I knew immediately that she would be a challenge, but I’ve always liked challenges. It had taken me the entire first month to find out that Gonzo was short for her last name-Gonzalez. It took me another month to find out her first name- Roberta, which she forced out with an embarrassed exasperation after a few too many nips of the whisky supply I’d brought along. Now there were only two weeks left of our trip, and I didn’t want to miss a chance while I had it.
The morning had been spent hauling our equipment from the camp to the dive site, and then drilling a hole in the ice. We had been aided by the team leader, an oceanographer named Irvin Telford. Despite his name, he was actually a nice guy; definitely an egghead, but one who got along easily with a normal guy like me, without seeming like he was forcing it.
We were also joined by the ever-present Franklin, who rushed out of camp following us, saying between bites of his breakfast sandwich that he had to “supervise” us. Apparently that mostly consisted of asking questions and wheezing on the rare occasions he actually lifted something, but hey, he’s the boss.
The dive suits weren’t like any I had used before. To protect us from the freezing ocean, the rubber suits were filled with a layer of warm water, kept heated by a small device strapped to our backs, next to the air tank. Gonzo and I got dressed quickly and waited for our suits to warm before diving in.
As we slid into the inky pool, Telford handed us the cable we would be following. In the darkness and weightlessness of water, it‘s too easy to lose track of which way is up, so the cable included a few bright-red lights. At the end of its length it branched into two thinner ropes that tethered to clips on out belts. When we were ready to come up, a small button on the main cable would send Telford the signal and he would activate the motorized reel the cable was attached to.
With a final look at the sunlight, we began to let air out of our vests, and sank below the surface. I felt like I was entering into an alien world, a strange land of rock and ice, devoid of all but the most primitive life. As we descended, Gonzo and I held onto the cable, even though the smaller ropes it joined to were safely tethered to our waists. I think it was a final, desperate attempt to remain connected to the sane world above, but it was far too late for that.
Above us, the circle of sunlight grew smaller and then disappeared, as if we were in the mouth of some great monster, snapping its jaws shut on an unexpected morsel. We reached up and turned on the lights built into our helmets. They gave only a thin beam of light, only enough to illuminate each other’s faces, but that was enough. The only other light was on the cable, but the bulbs glowed a sharp and alarming red, which stood out in the darkness like alien eyes, so I focused my attention back onto Gonzo. She must have noticed me looking, because she reached up and hit the switch on her headset. Her voice came through the radio in a thin crackle. “So tell me, do you look at all your dive partners that way, or just the ones you’re planning to fuck?”
I grinned. No need to worry about Telford overhearing; we were far too deep for him to be in range. It was just us. “Usually just the ones I’m planning to fuck.” She smiles mischievously. It seems that four months of work is paying off. Just as I’m letting that sink in, we reach the bottom.
Our goal is the peak of a rounded hill that juts from the sea floor. That genius Franklin wants us to find out the reasons for its sudden and solitary rise from the ocean floor. He thinks a buildup of oil or natural gas is the explanation, and a few rock samples would help prove him correct.
As my flippered feet touch down on the rocky surface, I find that I can almost walk on the hill. Almost. After a few near-stumbles, I find it’s best to float a few feet above the rock. Gonzo has already figured that out, and I scramble to keep up with her. She’s already stuffed a few rocks into her sample case before I’ve even opened mine.
As I focus on my work, I hear a voice in my head. “I’ll be right back,” Gonzo says, “Don’t go anywhere.” With a laugh, I look up to see that she’s worked her way to the crest of the hill. She goes over and is out of sight.
I concentrate on filling my sample case, picking up the small chunks of rock with metal tongs so I don’t tear my suit, and stuffing them into the plastic container. After fifteen minutes or so, I’ve found enough loose pieces to fill it to the brim, and I put the lid back on. I look up to see that Gonzo has still not returned, and I become concerned. No way she took longer than me.
The sample case is now heavy enough to put down without fear of it floating away, so I set it on the rocky floor and leave it behind. The narrow beam from my headlamp shows only a few inches of her rope at a time, but I follow it up and over the crest, continuing to trace the rope down the opposite face of the hill.
My search leads me to a canyon, the black maw consuming Gonzo’s rope, and I panic. I furiously tug at the rope as I scream into the radio, “Gonzo!”
“What?” I am relieved to hear. Her head appears over the edge of the canyon, followed shortly by the rest of her.
“What were you doing down there?” I ask in desperation.
“Only my job,” she replies with a smirk. “Here, check out what I found down there.” She hands me a sticky black mass of something that looks almost like tar, but softer
“Did you find oil?”
“That’s what I want to find out. I think there’s more in this crevasse.”
Without waiting for a reply, she disappears into the canyon again. I hold up the thing she handed me and start to study it in the feeble light from my helmet. The blob fills my palm and is ringed with tiny fringes that float in the current. As I turn it over in my hand, Gonzo’s voice fills my head again. “Oh yeah, there’s a ton more down here!”
I am too absorbed by the thing to reply. I realize now that blob isn’t the right word; it doesn’t seem like a random chunk of matter. I get the impression of an independent and inevitable object. I’m just wondering what gives me that impression when I notice the things movement. The tiny fringes or flaps on its side aren’t just moving with the current, they seem to be moving the opposite direction of the bubbles from my air valve, as if they are moving under their own power. Or are they? It’s so hard to see anything for certain in the feeble light, and I’ve been trapped in this underwater dungeon for far too long.
Once again, Gonzo’s voice cuts off my train of thought. “My god, Mark, it’s everywhere! I have no idea what this stuff is, I need to put it in my sample case.”
I raise the thing up for closer inspection when it suddenly lunges at my face. For a moment, my visor is blocked by the things’ sticky mass, and my mind is blocked by the terror it inspires. After a moment, I recover both as I grab the thing and pull it away, flinging it into the outer darkness.
“I think this might be something living, Mark; it seems like it’s moving.” I’m raising my hand to turn on my radio, to warn Gonzo, when the thing swims out of the darkness and lunges at my face again. I have to use both hands to grab it, and I can’t reach the switch for the radio.
As I struggle, I see that the flaps on the things’ sides are really tentacles: horrible appendages that wrap around my hands and wrists. I reflexively jump back to escape the thing and end up going over the hillcrest, the rocks making small tears in my suit. I don’t even notice the hot water leaking out, the slow icy death of the ocean seeping in, I’m so focused on fighting the quick and bizarre death that is now eating through my glove. I see the rubber disappearing, and I feel the strange sliminess reaching through and sinking into my skin.
I turn my head away in terror and disgust, and there I see the answer: the sample case I left on the rocky floor. I push the thing fully onto my left hand, leaving my right free to reach for the case. As I reach, the thing greedily wraps around my left hand, enveloping it in pain as my fingers disappear. I try to ignore it in favor of reaching the case to keep the creature in. I’m still a few feet away when I hear Gonzo for the last time.
“Mark?! They’re moving, they’re alive! You have to-“ The transmission suddenly dies, as if her hand was instantly pulled away from the button. I have to save her, but first I have to stop the thing that’s attacking me.
I reach the case and fumble for a moment, pulling off the lid. With only one hand, it’s difficult to control both the case and the lid, but I’ll need both if I want to contain the creature. Holding the lid in the crook of my armpit, I awkwardly flip the case over.
When the rock samples inside have finished spilling out, I bring the case to my left hand and use its edges in an attempt to scrape the thing away. That only partially dislodges it, and I have to bring the attacked arm against the rock floor, scraping my arms to the bone. I don’t feel this new pain; the greater pain of the creature drowns it out.
With it pinned between the sea floor and the case, I’m finally able to dislodge the creature and get it inside the case. I slam the lid on top and snap the latches shut as the thing pounds against the top, bending the plastic out. In horror, I toss the case aside, watching it disappear into the darkness.
I only take a moment to examine my hand before I rush back to Gonzo. I have an impression of mottled flesh, the stumps of fingers, the ragged dive suit, before I am scrambling furiously back over the crest. I raise my hand to turn on the radio, but the button is on the left side. I reach around my head with the right. “Gonzo! I’m coming!” No response.
I reach the edge of the canyon and find her rope. I pull it up furiously, wincing at the pain when I’m stupid enough to use the stump of my left hand. I reach the edge of the rope and find only a frayed clump of wires. In desperation, I look down and see the thing.
As I watch the black mass boiling up the canyon, I know exactly what type of creature we have encountered. In the wild undulations of its tentacles, the almost obscene wriggling of its body, I see nature unbound; pure life and instinct given their most primitive and perfect form. Its blind hunger is unmarred by love like that I feel for Gonzo or hatred like that I feel for Franklin. It simply consumes, and lives to consume again.
But what were these things? Were they attracted to the light? Had we somehow woken them up by coming down here? How long had they been sleeping here in the darkness before we arrived? These are questions I have no time to answer as I swim furiously for the cable. If I can reach the button and signal to Telford to pull me up, I may be able to move fast enough to escape the thing. I have now become like the creature I am fleeing; my consciousness is overridden by a single primitive instinct, not that of hunger, but of survival. I’ve even pushed the thought of Gonzo away.
I try to follow my own tethered rope to the main cable, but my various crosses and re-crosses through the hill have left it tangled in a series of hopeless loops. It will take too long to follow them all, so instead I swim blindly in the direction I pray is right. I can see only a few inches ahead of me, but when the sample case glides by on my right, I know I’m almost there. I note with horror that the lid is still bursting out from the creature inside, pushing the case along the sea floor. I only have an instant to take in the sight before I see the red glow of the cable lights.
I never thought I would be relieved to see those monstrous eye-like bulbs, but as I leave behind the rocky hill and make a final push towards the cable, my heart can only feel a wild, desperate joy, one that only increases as my hand finds the button to signal the surface. I press it repeatedly, as if that will bring me up faster. I know the motor will take time to start, and even then will bring me up too slowly.
I begin to ascend on my own, using the rope as my guide. My heart sinks as I feel the sticky mass. I hesitate to look, as if not looking will make it not exist, but when I feel the stinging pain in my fingers I can no longer deny reality. I turn my head and see the awful creature, now spread along the rope as far as I can see. My fingers are fused in its mass, as if I am part of it. From behind, I hear an awful rushing sound, as of some giant mass displacing water. Again, for a moment, I am fearful to turn around and confirm what I dread is true, but my single instinct of survival compels me to at least attempt a fight.
I turn around, and for the first time since I entered this icy tomb, I am thankful for the short range of my light. At least I can’t see the creature as it eats me.
Telford snaps out of a doze as the signal begins to blare. “Shit, already?” he mumbles as he rolls off his cot. Franklin also rises up, rubbing sleep from his eyes and crumbs from his mouth. Telford hits the button for the winch and watches as the cable begins to spool at his feet.
He grows concerned when the signal continues to bleat its single note. “Don’t they know you only need to hit it once?” Franklin jokes, but Telford doesn’t feel like joking. At last the signal stops, and he relaxes.
“I hope nothing went wrong to make them hit the button that many times. At least we know they didn’t get separated from the cable.”
Franklin nods in agreement. “Well, we’ll find out in a minute.” He kneels by the dark pool and greedily stares into its waters.
“I can’t wait to see what they’ve brought up.”