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The Color and Space

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When a grad student's research head is taken, the student must explore the depths to try and find out what happened.

Scifi / Horror
Joshua Byrns
Age Rating:

The Color and Space

We felt the shudder and thud as our submersible finally touched the bottom. It was 1843 hours; the initial impact had occurred at 1659. The only things the backup power worked on were a few basic instruments, the air scrubbers, and the doors- whatever had hit us had busted the radio, or at least the antenna, making it impossible for us to contact the Discoverer. After two hundred metres sunlight fails to penetrate the water, at least to any degree that humans can perceive, and while the EVA suits had a lamp on either side of the helmet, we were reluctant to use them yet. Our only light for the time being would therefore come not from the submersible’s headlights or the suits’ headlamps, but from the big Maglite that Dr. Mullhall had brought. His brother-in-law is a police officer back in San Diego, and wouldn’t let the Discoverer leave port without the flashlight on board. It made sense to have it- we had the room for it, and we figured we would be better safe than sorry. That was several days and several lines of latitude before the incident.

I volunteered to go out and take a look at the radio, but Dr. Mullhall wouldn’t have any of it. “You’re too promising a grad student for me to risk that,” he told me with only half a smile. The pressure in Challenger Deep- the lowest point known in the Marianas Trench- reaches well over 1,000 times that of the surface. Our then-current measurements put us at 11.14km under sea level and read 1,094 bars; these were both measurements that hadn’t previously been recorded. We calmed ourselves by suggesting the instruments were thrown off by a power surge or whatever had hit us, but I still dreamed of what my interview in National Geographic would look like. “Maxwell Richards, marine biology doctoral candidate, survivor of the depths.” I liked the way that sounded in my head.

I helped Dr. Mullhall into his EVA suit, our submersible’s “cabin” lit by the Maglite duct taped to the husk of the sonar machine. The red-and-white suit had been made specially for this dive, built to withstand pressures exceeding 1,200 bars, and to operate 24 hours on its power supply. I grew up loving Iron Man, and this was probably as close as I’d ever get to having his suit. Dr. Mullhall was aging, to be sure, but even at 64 he had still been cleared to go on the mission. The suits were doable by oneself but I needed to feel useful. I twisted his helmet on and finished checking all the wires and cables. He stepped into the airlock, and as the door closed I felt a pang of jealousy for not being the first one to go outside. Dr. Mullhall had been an incredible mentor to me, but he had a career already, and he had to know that an opportunity like this would make mine. It would certainly make my dissertation easier to defend. I would start sentences with, “When I was at the bottom of Challenger Deep...” I could defend an idea with, “As I said in National Geographic...” The credibility and the experience would make my professional life a cakewalk from then on out. Maybe that was why he didn’t want me out there– it would make it too easy.

I held the black Maglite in my hand now, illuminating the inside of the airlock. Dr. Mullhall turned his helmet’s headlamps on, and even though the inner door was nearly halfway closed, the entirety of the submersible was awash in a white glow. I heard the faint sound of the hiss come from the outer door, and strode over to the starboard side of the submersible, standing with hands pressed against the glass. The submersible had a single chair at its nose, surrounded by a half-sphere of glass, allowing for unparalleled visibility. The glass is a borosilicate compound, and triple-layered; it was (and as far as I know still is) unparalleled in its protection. As the CEO of Rayotek said, "You can hire some giant squid to come over with a sledgehammer and just start bashing away on that glass sphere. And it won't hurt it." We didn’t plan on testing that claim, but the glass seemed to be working so far. The glass dome extended on the upper half of the submersible for two metres, and I was able to see two beams of light as Dr. Mullhall made his approach to the radio antenna.

The beams of light went out for a fraction of a second, one shortly following the other, before coming back on. I reached for the radio microphone to talk to him. The beams then swung abruptly toward the distant surface, and arced to nearly 60°. I remembered then that the radio wasn’t working. Then the lights ran away from the submersible. I don’t know how else to describe it- they didn’t disappear, but they moved away so quickly that I couldn’t think of any other explanation. I dropped the radio and immediately began rummaging through my backpack. I discarded several of the objects I’d packed to uncover a survival knife I had included as a just-in-case measure. Its selling point to me was a watertight compartment inside the handle, the bottom of which had a compass and inside of which was a small sewing kit, magnesium spark creator, and a single cigarette (my own addition). I cut a length of rope some three metres long with the knife, and set both on top of the sonar machine’s shell, before putting on the second suit in the submersible. Before fastening my own helmet, I lashed the knife onto my right thigh, just above the kneecap.

The pumps inside the airlock groaned as they bailed the ocean water out of the chamber, barely enough power being provided to do so. The doors normally run at 400 volts, and require at least 370 to even budge; I cannot remember the specifics, but emergency power only gives them around 380, and that number would assume the wiring was still completely intact. After several eternities of waiting, I finally heard the pumps’ whine lower in pitch as they finished their job. Normally there is a red or green light for the airlock’s status, but that wasn’t included on the emergency circuit, so it was up to my memory of our training sessions to make sure the airlock was ready to be opened. I guess it wouldn’t have been the worst outcome at that point if the submersible was flooded, but it had cost the University a lot of money, and I thought they would want it back as intact as possible. I entered the airlock, and when the door behind me finished closing, I opened up the outer door.

Stepping into the ink of the ocean’s bottommost waters is an experience I will never forget. I was the second ever person to be in that trench at that depth. Dr. Mullhall and I were breaking records left and right. The suit’s own barometer also read 1,094 bars, and its fathometer agreed with the submersible’s 11.14km measurement. The temperature read at -1℃- a full two degrees lower than what we had expected. I took a deep breath, and hoped that the measurements were being backed up so I could prove them when I got to the surface. I turned to my left to examine the area Dr. Mullhall had been in. There were clearly visible boot prints in the silt, and as I turned the corner, I could see the water was still cloudy where he had presumably been standing. My own headlamps pierced the darkness and illuminated the side of the submersible; something had definitely hit us. Where once a neon yellow paintjob had adorned the vessel, there was only the dulled silver-grey of sheet metal. The metal had a v-shaped channel dug into it, almost half metre wide and two metres long, inside of which countless scratches were gouged into the side. The remains of the radio box were there, but only barely- anyone looking for an object with a resemblance beyond a basic rectangle would be sorely disappointed.

I leaned back into the water, craning myself to try and find a trail of Dr. Mullhall. The water was empty for at least sixty metres in front of me, and around me as well. I kicked myself up slightly, and was now facing the port side from the submersible. Three lights blinked in the upper-left corner of the helmet’s display- ENVIRONMENTAL THREAT, RADIO DISTANCE, AND PRESSURE WARNING- U. R. LEG. Probably the three most useless warnings I could’ve had at the time. It was no surprise that something in the water was dangerous to humans at this depth; the radio was gone; and the pressure was from the knife that I myself had put onto my leg. The only worrying part there was that it hadn’t come on immediately; I assume the jump put pressure on the sensor. I couldn’t remember how to dismiss these, so I had to learn how to ignore them. At 1852 hours, I was officially vacating the submersible, just shy of an hour after its impact. The vehicle was damaged, possibly beyond repair; Dr. Mullhall was missing, taken by something big enough to scare off all life in a considerable distance, except for one foolish doctoral candidate; and that candidate had just abandoned the multimillion dollar submersible purpose-built for this expedition on its first outing, only a few hours into it at that. It was not an ideal situation.

I turned myself to face the direction towards which the lights had disappeared. Some three hundred metres away I saw a school of a nearly-xenobiological species of fish scatter; but beyond them, and seemingly beyond that, the water was still empty. The EVA suits have small propellers on the backpack, and I throttled them up to 30% power, moving myself through the swathe cut by Dr. Mullhall as he was dragged away like a fish on bait. At 1904 hours, the trail had gone silent- I was becoming surrounded by small fish and fishlike creatures, and clearly had to give up on my pursuit. The EVA suit’s power had gone down to 87%- not enough to panic about, but I had to be careful. The suit had an emergency ballast, but it would take several minutes to reach the surface, and being there would be of little help if I had already suffocated inside it. The submersible also had ballasts, but I couldn’t remember if they were deployable on emergency power, and realized only when I turned to look that I could no longer see the vessel anyway. Thankfully the warnings had disappeared at some point. I floated on momentum for some time, the occasional bizzarity scurrying away at my approach, and was contemplating the deployment of my ballasts when I first saw the chambers.

I say now, in retrospect, that I saw the chambers, but I did not recognize them as such when I first laid my eyes upon them. I initially saw a part of the ocean floor where even the concentrated light from my helmet feared to tread, and despite (or in spite of) my trepidation I upped the throttle and headed for it. It was around 150 metres away and off to my right side at about 2 o’clock; I had long lost my orientation to the submersible. I came upon an opening in the ground not unlike a flattened cave, the inside of which was an even blacker black than the black I had been swimming in. My headlamps pierced only a fraction of what they should have been able to, but the lack of fish swimming around it led me to believe that if something had taken Dr. Mullhall, he would be down there. I patted my thigh and felt comfort in the blade that was still attached. We had been given a crash course in fighting sharks, orcas, and basic techniques that should work against other marine life, in the unlikely event of an attack. And if a shark or squid had taken Dr. Mullhall, I had to believe that I would be able to summon the courage in my heart to rescue him.

As I closed in on the blackness, my lights continually probed its depths, albeit stopping short of where they would in clearer waters. At 40 metres, my suit again warned me of an ENVIRONMENTAL HAZARD, to which I wanted to roll my eyes. My lights were only going around 40 metres into the inky water, whether it was from far away or until I got up right on it. At 1927 hours I finally crossed into the tunnel. I scanned from right to left and back. The entrance had deceived me in its width- I had presumed it to be no more than a 10-metre opening, but now that I was on it, it had to be at least 30 metres around. I began to postulate the various new species that would be discovered- did you know that, on average, over one dozen new species will be discovered and catalogued every time a dive is made? The fangtooth fish is one of the largest creatures for its depth, having been found at the icy depths of 5,000 metres and below, so it would not be unthinkable for complex, carnivorous life to exist at the benthic zone. I wondered, is this a new zone, past that? The sub-benthic zone? The Mullhall-Richards zone, perhaps? Whatever lived in here was clearly not a solitary predator, but something that would enter and exit this habitat as a school, then perhaps split off to hunt. And what a commute it was- it was 1943 hours and I still did not see any sign of this cave ending.

At 1945 hours, the cave opened up slightly, to perhaps 35 metres wide. Ahead I could see a wall, and began mentally preparing myself to have to go back through this tunnel, and I was already down to 51% power. As I approached it I could see the faintest traces of light. My heart was off like a drag racer, and I throttled up to nearly full speed, a healthy clip for an EVA suit. The next two minutes of my life passed by agonizingly slow. I swore I could feel my hair growing, and the opening never seemed to get any closer to me. The water in front of me began changing color as light passed through it, transitioning seamlessly from black to brown to rust. At 1953 hours, the water had become what I can only describe as neon burnt umber- imagine an immensely powerful flashlight shining through a chocolate fountain, and I think you have an idea of what it looked like, and for quite some time. When I realized that the light was getting stronger, my heart nearly arrested from excitement.

When I was little, every Saturday my dad and I performed the same ritual. At 8:30 in the morning, I would wake up, and we would meet downstairs in the living room. For the next three and a half hours we ate the sugariest cereal my mother would buy, and watched the antics of cartoon animals. My favorite was Wiley E. Coyote and his various contraptions. The cartoon skyline of the animated southwestern United States was always an orange so dark and bright that I assumed it was an exaggeration. As I broke out of the water, however, this was the exact color of the sky that greeted me. My suit’s compass had been pointing north for some time, and I distrusted it, and even now spinning around it still failed to change. At 2004 hours I had returned to the surface. I had come up near a solitary landmass, and the Discoverer was nowhere to be seen, although it was not near any landmasses I can recall. The landmass looked to be about two kilometres wide, and some ten kilometres away from me. I began moving towards it. On the landmass I could see alabaster towers and walls, perhaps twelve and eight metres high respectively. The Pacific is not known for its history of stone sea forts, and we hadn’t been briefed on anything, but these did not have the decay of time over them, and I hoped to find someone with a radio I could use to call the Discoverer.

Seconds turned to minutes turned to nearly an hour. 42% power left- it seemed the heating system had nearly shut off. The landmass looked massive now, as if I had shrunk to the size of a toy in a bathtub. I lamented the lack of any rangefinding equipment on the EVA suit, and as I questioned just what it could even do, I realized that the oxygen system had quieted down; in training, we had been taught that this was either catastrophic system failure and one should risk the bends and make for the surface immediately, or the suit was incorporating outside oxygen. Assuming the latter I lifted my hands to the seal releases, took and held a deep breath, and pushed. The glass in front of me swung back into the suit and no warning klaxons sounded. I was met with the most comforting warmth I have ever felt, and the sky heated up my face. I exhaled and inhaled again. The air was not only pure, it was delicious. The salty ocean air had been a familiar friend in my marine biology career, but this was so perfect, I momentarily reconsidered making the distress call. But then I thought back to Dr. Mullhall, missing and possibly dead, or worse. A seabeast had taken him away, and had indirectly brought me to where I found myself.

At 2112 hours, I finally reached the shore. The sky had not darkened at all, and my attempts to locate the sun had been fruitless; they were now impossible, as the alabaster fortification in front of me loomed at least one hundred metres above. The stone seemed to erupt from beneath the sand itself, and when I came close enough to visually inspect it, I was able to see the white wall slide under similarly-colored grains of sand. I started to dig at the sand where it met the wall, the suit’s rubberized gloves moving heaps with each scoop. The wall continued ever down, showing no signs of turning to a foundation. I pulled my survival knife from its sheath when the sand started falling back into the hole, feeling deeper than my thick gloves would allow, but the wall still showed no sign of coming to an end. I stood up, and began walking to my right, following the straight walls. At 2122, I stumbled a bit, and threw my hand out to stabilize myself. Instead of meeting resistance on the alabaster, I fell through it, finding myself inside the fort.

The inside looked as if the entire Amazon rainforest had been transplanted into it. Trees wider round than the submersible soared over my head, dense foliage blocking out almost all the orange light of the sky. The alabaster walls were still around me, and continued into a sprawling maze of walkways, with some turning into stairways and ramps up and back down, others coiling around the ground. I looked behind me and saw the wall through which I had just fallen, but pushing on it with all my mortal strength was still futile. My eyes strained to peer through the woods, and I could make out a central white stone tower at the heart of the winding paths. The stone path was devoid of moss, and had clearly seen thousands of footsteps on it. As I began my exploration, I noticed gouges in the path and sporadically along the trees, half a metre wide and varying from just as long, to over five metres at another point. I put the tower at roughly one kilometre from where I’d started, but that distance seemed impossible.

At 2134 I saw the first sign of life on the island. I heard the noise of something from behind a tree a short distance in front of me- the first noise I had heard in hours that I hadn’t made. I drew the knife, and ran over the countless situations I could be in, each more preposterous than the last. I was suddenly beset upon by a creature, roughly humanoid, but covered in what looked like a soft and wet pink flesh in place of any type of skin I have ever seen, and wearing what I can only call a robe- it seemed to be cloth, and loose-fitting. It leapt into the air at me, and out of instinct I put the short blade in front of me, serendipitously managing to hit it. It withered away in an instant as if the skin held only a pinch of dust. The robe visibly crumbled as it landed on the stone. I then heard the echo of a scream, and identified it as my own. Whatever or whoever else was here was now certainly aware of my presence.

I continued down the stone path, doing my best to keep my heading towards the tower. A few times, I stopped and scanned to make sure I was on track, only to find that I was facing a completely foreign area, even though the walkway had neither turned nor banked at all. The only noise I heard was my suit’s rubber boots shuffling along the presumably ancient masonry- no more creatures, no more of my screams, nothing at all. I realized that I had not seen any walls in some time, and other than the paths, the tower was the only stonework I could still see, although it had to be close at this point. It loomed over at least three hundred feet. I do not know how I didn’t see it over the walls from outside. At 2204, the walkway straightened out, and angled up, leading to what was clearly a door on the tower.

The ramped walkway to the door was steep, at least a 30 degree incline, but in my lust to discover some human life I barely noticed. I jogged as much as I could in the heavy EVA suit, closing the distance of nearly fifty metres in less than a minute. The tower itself was enormous. I can only assume that during its construction, entire generations of workers lived and died building it, never seeing even a fraction of its height completed in their time. I could not see the top of it, although I also did not see any sort of cloud or atmospheric disturbances around it, nor anywhere else for that matter. The door itself was another slab of alabaster, of indeterminate thickness. I put the knife back in its sheath, and pressed a hand against it. Firm. I put both hands on, and pushed. Still no movement. I put my back against it, and struggled against the weight. It did not feel as if it was being barred from the other side, only that I was too weak to move it. As I caught my breath, I heard a noise from the walkway. My boot squeaked as I spun on it, and my right hand dropped to pull the knife out. In my excitement, I lost my grip, and instead flung the blade at the wall next to me, thankfully avoiding piercing my suit. I picked it off the floor as I dove to the ground, and looked up to see a frightful abomination streak past me. It was as if a raven had been grown to grotesque proportions, and then had tentacles stapled around its beak; it did not appear to notice me as it flew away, but I dared not move for some time. Finally, I crawled to the side of the door, and huddled. As I did so, I felt the ground beneath me rumble and shake, and I began to cry while more disgusting bird-things flew out of trees, swarming around nothing particular. The suit gave the time as 2213. 34% power.

As the rumble ended it was replaced with a dry grinding. The door was receding into the ground, though I saw no cracks there. I waited for several seconds before daring to get up and move. Inside, I could see the stone walkway end, turning into an antechamber before a second doorway opened up into a circular room somehow wider than anything I could imagine. The entire room was dimly lit from a source I could not yet see, a deep blue hue cast over a mosaic floor. As I reached the end of the antechamber the world around me shook again and I was thrown to the ground, my hands cracking the mosaic tiles where they landed. Now lit by my helmet’s lamps, I could see that the tiles were all bright shades of white. I ran my finger along the floor, and struggled for a moment to place the texture. Too hard to be plastic, too smooth for stone. I swallowed a breath realizing they were teeth, not unlike the front teeth of a human, although the sizes were not particularly varied. Looking up as I stood, I saw a clockwise-winding staircase along the perimeter of the interior, and while I could not discern how high it went, the light at the top was a small, bright dot to me. I moved towards the stairway, each step making a sickening crunch, although the mosaic did not appear damaged at all. The smell of mildew filled my nostrils, but it was far more pleasant than possible alternative scents of decay.

The stairs were at least two metres wide, and made of perfectly cut bluestone. I could have easily laid down and slept, but I knew this was no time for a nap. At 2347 hours, I could see the stairs ending, leading onto the roof of the tower. At 0012 hours I officially stepped onto the roof. An alabaster column was immediately to my left, and as a gust of wind blew through, it became my anchor to stop me from being pushed down. I looked over the edge of the tower, and saw sights like no human before me had. The tallest redwoods and sequoias would be but shrubs in comparison to the trees within; the walls I had seen before spanned for countless miles in all directions; and as I turned to look behind me, I saw the Mullhall-Richards monster.

I estimate the tower to be three kilometres high- I climbed it only with the aid of my suit, and even then it had taken some time. The beast I saw was easily as tall as the tower. Its chitinous shell was deep violet in color, nearly black, and from it sprouted eight shelled legs, carrying it toward me at a slow pace. Four beady black eyes, likely the size of small houses themselves, stuck out from its front, and I could feel their gaze penetrating into my soul. Between each of the legs sprouted tentacles that could easily reach the ground and back up again; the creature was using these to propel itself towards me, moving from massive tree to massive tree with an innate grace I would have reserved for smaller animals. Around it flew a horde of the same bird-things that had attacked me earlier, forming dark clouds that threatened to blot the cartoon-orange sky.

One of the beast’s armored legs fell to the ground, and the entire tower shook with such ferocity that the stairs I had climbed seconds earlier were threatening to leave their posts. I stepped on the top to head down and try to hide somewhere, anywhere, and as my boot touched the step, it crumbled apart and fell to the bottom; the other steps followed sequentially, vertical dominoes spelling out a death sentence for me. I pulled my foot back in time to stabilize myself from another hurricane breeze, but now had nowhere to flee. I considered jumping off the side of the tower- but then, I knew too much about this place to let that knowledge be lost. I instead circled the roof, hugging each column and moving with bent knees to lower my center of gravity. The beast had crossed half its distance now- metres and kilometres had lost their sense of purpose here, where scale was wantonly ignored- and it seemed to be picking up its pace. My arms were wrapped around a column, with my body holding fast against a particularly strong gust, when I felt the universe shake around me. and again, and a third time.

Daring to peek around and below, I saw that the beast now had all of its legs on the tower, and was using these with its tentacles to climb the tower from the outside. It would be on my shortly. The entire stone tower groaned in protest, although it did not lean from the unimaginable weight being put on it. Winged monsters were starting to fly around the roof, and though none had attacked me yet, I drew my knife again. At 0016 hours, the first tentacled crested over the edge of the roof. Its tip was the size of our submersible, each sucker at least two metres wide and ringed with pointed bone spikes. The first tentacle wrapped itself around my column, another grabbing onto a column near me, and I decided to take my chance. I closed and sealed my helmet, and gripped the knife in my right hand.

I launched myself at the monster, summoning up all the strength I had left in me, and the 23% power of the suit. As I moved my legs to springboard off the tower, a third tentacle raised itself up and slammed into my front. I flew backwards until I was over the hole in the top of the tower, and felt myself hit one of the winged monsters. Before I fell back to the earth, I saw clearly the face of the Mullhall-Richards monster. In that second I saw its black-toothed grin, alternating sharp and flat teeth like nothing I’d ever seen in nature. Its maw opened wide enough to swallow the tower itself whole, and the stench from it made me retch in disgust. In that moment, I met its eyes with mine, and where I had expected to sense anger, hatred, or evil, I felt nothingness. Absolute nothingness. This creature defined apex predator, and I was its prey. Gravity took over and I fell to the bottom of the tower, dropping my knife as I went. I braced for the impact.

I woke up at the surface of the water, the USS Discoverer not one hundred metres away. The time read 0532 hours, the suit’s power at 12%. I could only see sky, I tried to move the suit around, but found myself stiffened; the ballasts had been deployed, and brought me to the surface. I noticed then the intense pain in my joints and head, and the beauty of the slate-grey sky of maritime dawn. Something tugged at my arms, and I heard the shearing sound of the ballasts being torn away. A neoprene glove was visible in the lower corner of my vision, with the bracelet of a rescue diver wrapped around its base. The Discoverer had received my distress call, and I was being brought aboard alive. The rest can be found in the depositions of the ship’s crew.

I, Maxwell Richards, believe that the facts stated in this witness statement are true, as recorded on this July 11th, 2018, under penalty of perjury. I proclaim and maintain my innocence in the disappearance of Dr. Frank Mullhall, and deny any involvement with it. I hope the court will recognize that I am not guilty of this crime, and drop all charges against me, in light of the events as told in this document.

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