"So what do you, Maksim? Why are you here?"
"I'm just here, you know," I said nervously, "I was given this opportunity to collect and study samples of a new or mutated type of vegetation down below. So yeah, I'm here", I chuckled, not wanting to talk much.
"That's nice. That's good for you. Such opportunities are rare to come by. This is a good stepping stone, it's going to be fun and rewarding. You are fortunate."
"And you, Mr. Ska-Alvar? What brings you here? I reckon you're not just my driver?", I joked, hoping he would find humour in it.
He did, he laughed, and explained to me that as an oceanographer, he was contacted when the University realized that they did not have any data about the area they wanted to explore and study. They figured that it would be good to have an oceanographer down there with their marine biologist, and decided he would be the best companion for Maksim.
After an hour of conversation or so, when we had reached a little over 3 kilometres below the ocean, he used the radio to contact the University.
"Hello, this is Alvar Skagen from RV-1. I am with Maksim Tande. Time is currently 14:00 hours. We are about to make the final descent. Recontact estimated in T minus 5 hours. Over."
I was confused. Why did Alvar let them know now instead of waiting to tell them when we reached our destination? And why would we wait 5 hours to contact them?
"Copy. Over.", crackled the radio back.
"Over and out." he replied, while steering around some rocks. It didn't seem like a fun job and I was glad I wasn't the one driving the pod.
I finally gathered the courage to ask him something I had every right of knowing.
"Why did we contact them now instead of when we get there?"
"We're far far below the ocean. Below this, the signal won't reach us. We can't contact them and they cannot contact us."
At first I thought he was joking with me, but when I didn't see a smile or a chuckle, I knew he was serious and all I could come with was, "Oh".
He explained to me, "They never tell first-timers this. Which is why they also never let first-timers go alone or with other first-timers. Us, old sea-veterans, are to explain all these things to you. Water isn't like space, it isn't open and free. It's dense. There is too much interference, so we tell them before we enter the zone where it's impossible to be in contact. Think of it like you telling someone that you're going to have to hang up on the phone because you're about to enter the elevator". It made sense, but it was haunting, nonetheless.
I almost felt deceived but I didn't want to waste time on that. I just looked outside and admired the view. Fish and other organisms just swimming away from and around us. Plants I could not recognize just swaying lightly. I was lost in my own world, when we came to a stop.
"Welcome to your destination, Maksim. Here we are! And now here we go", he said, as he got up and started collecting his things.
"Wait, shouldn't I wait here then? Protocol says one person must stay in the pod at all t-"
"Really Maksim? Let's go. Fuck the protocol"
"With all due respect, Alvar, I don't know how I feel about breaking protocol. We've been instr-"
"Look, the people who write this bullshit protocol have no idea how it is to be down here alone. Hell, I'll bet they've never dived underneath. Trust me, going out there alone is not something anyone is ever prepared for. So how do you feel about this? You have three options: One, you stay here and I go out now. Then you go out there all alone. Two, you stay here and I go out now, and then you decide you don't want to go out alone so we just go back up, having you waste your own and the University's time. Or three, we both go out now"
He was the more experienced one, so I got my underwater work pad, on which I could take pictures and make notes about what I saw. Alvar took his, and we exited the pod.
It was haunting, it was creepy, and yet somehow, it was beautiful. I was here, after all these years, and all my doubts were gone for the time being. I was lost in the beauty to pay attention to what Alvar was saying, through our own earpieces. He finally tapped my shoulder and I snapped back into the present.
"I'm hooking this cable up to your oxygen tank. It's extendable and flexible, but it will go only up to 500 metres away from the pod. After that, you won't be able to go any further so don't try to tug. If you want to go further, we go back to the pod, drive further and come back out. No shortcuts. Clear?"
"Good. Our personal radios, our earpieces that is, need to be within a kilometre away from each other for us to be able to talk to each other. This means I can be in one direction of the pod and you in the complete opposite and even at the end of our cable, we would be able to talk. But still, I'm not comfortable with that, and I'm going to assume that you won't be either, so we'll stick together. Work for you?"
"Yes sir", I said nervously.
And so we started exploring. It didn't take too long to find the sea flower I was here to find. I did note a difference that there were red circular rings on the petals. I took two and put them in my pouch. I took pictures and started writing notes. Alvar, meanwhile was just taking pictures.
We continued going farther, going through what seemed like caves, and recording more information. I collected more types of flora, took pictures and notes of everything - fish and plants. A lot of them, I had never ever seen.
It was around then that Alvar suggested that we go back to the pod and move as we would be reaching our cable capacity soon.
I turned around to look at the pod and said the only thing I could muster up to say: "Oh fuck". Alvar turned around and did not say anything. He looked at me, looked back in the direction of our pod and then looked back at me.
Our cables had been cut. There was no pod where we had left it.
"Okay, Maksim, I won't lie to you, that is weird, but we may have cut our cables while swimming and may have lost track of the way we came. The pod is still obviously somewhere here. Let's backtrack the way we got - "
And his flashlight died. Our flashlights were extremely powerful. And when one of them died, the difference was extremely felt. He tried to fidget with it, but then as soon as my flashlight started flickering, Alvar started furiously swimming towards me - before mine went out too.
Then, there was darkness. Pitch black darkness. On the ground, even at night, you're still able to see. But so far down in the ocean, neither sunlight nor moonlight reached where I was. It was all very very dark.
"Maksim, I'm coming towards where the light was. I'm swimming straight. Do not move. I will most likely bump into you. As soon as I do, we'll figure something out. Good thing our earpieces are still wo-SON OF A BITCH"
I heard nothing. I felt nothing. I didn't know why he screamed. I sat there blankly, waiting for him. I must have waited a minute before I realized something had happened. He may not have screamed out of frustration. Still, I stood there, for he was my best chance of figuring out what to do.
It was pitch black darkness. And somehow, for the first time, I heard the noise of the ocean. I must have been here for hours but it was the first time I fully comprehended the noise that the ocean make. It was as if someone or something was whistling. It was hollow and flat, but smooth and consistent. The ocean did not need to need to break its whistling to collect its breath. It just went on and on.
Something bad had happened to Alvar, and I had no idea what to do. There was no fucking procedure guidance on what to do if your lights go out, you cannot contact anyone, and you don't know where your fucking pod is.
I decided to go back, but go back where? Was I to swim back to the surface? That sounded so ridiculous.
I yelled out, "ALVAR!", "ALVAR SKAGEN", "SKAGEN" as loud as I could, but nothing. Was I expecting to hear my own voice on his earpiece and then locate him? I don't know. It so, that was a stupid idea, but what was I to do?
It was so dark, I couldn't tell left from right, up from down. It was all so dark, and confusing. And if something did happen to Alvar, what was it? And would the same happen to me?
I decided to move. Out of desperation, I started swimming in the direction I thought we had come from. Kept swimming as fast as I could and then I hit something solid. Rocks. I moved my hand around on the rocks. I felt the rocks end. Was in a cave? Or was I just above one? Where was I?
I looked up. I was pretty sure the surface was above me, but there was no way of knowing. Suddenly, I got an idea. I opened my pouch and plucked something from the many flowers and leaves I had collected. Held on to it and brought it to my chest level. I let go of it and immediately put my hands around the thing I let go. Just a second later, I felt it touch my right palm. I was sideways. Whatever I let go was light and as a result, would move towards the surface. It had to. It was the only way the sea flower that the fishermen had gotten must have gotten it. It must have been loose for some reason and gone upwards instead of sinking to the bottom of the ocean. I started swimming to my right - that's where the surface of the ocean must be. I didn't care if I wasn't making sense. I was just frantic.
I must have been swimming for quite a few minutes when I felt something brush against my leg. Just some fish or something, I figured. Kept going, determined more than ever - survival is a great motivating instinct.
"WHAT THE FUCK", I must have yelled loud enough to wake up the dead. Whatever brushed against my leg did it again, but this time tightened its grip around my foot. I kicked whatever it was and kept swimming at the same time. Was it seaweed? I kicked furiously until I started hitting my own leg. I swam even faster and kept going. I was blind in this darkness but kept going anyway.
I had lost track of time, but I thought I must have swam for an hour or two and yet there was still no light. I was scared if I was in the wrong direction, but I was so alone that I had given up at this point. But I kept pushing.
I was getting drowsy. My eyes were starting to close, but it made no difference. All I could see was darkness. I was going to die, but I still kept pushing. I thought of my parents, of my siblings, and of my friends. I thought of the big moments in my life, in Svalbard, in the mainland. I guess this was my life flashing before me.
My eyes closed. My body slowed down. Darkness, take me fast.