The submersible traveled slowly down. It had to in order to adjust to the immense pressure which would cause it to implode if we progressed too fast. Looking to my left, past the pilot of our tiny vessel, Dr Pietro de Laurentis, I saw a giant spider crab scuffing through the sand. It was an enormous creature –its legs stretching out around its highly set body. It was as if on stilts, its thorax perched upon stakes that induced vertigo and caused it to lurch about like a madman. I remembered reading that these giants supposedly had gentle dispositions despite their enormous size and felt sorry for its being here, trapped in this submarine wasteland. Turning back to my right, I flinched in horror as a hapless lump of what looked like gelatin bobbed up and down next to my face on the other side of the glass, its eyes fixed in a corpse-like stare.
Pietro laughed, ‘Beautiful no? It’s a blobfish.’
‘No,’ I retorted defensively, embarrassed by my reaction. Although smaller than I’d imagined, it was a more farcical and repulsive character with a human-like frown permanently etched on its jelly face. I was slightly annoyed that Pietro was so obviously entertained by my naiveté, but there was little I could do. Pietro was Chief Biologist at the International Deep Sea Exploration Administration (IDSEA) and a world-renowned marine scientist. As his only passenger on our journey, I was totally reliant on his skill as a submersible pilot and scientist and both of us were totally at the mercy of the terrific ocean. It was in my best interest to stay on good terms, so I swallowed against my increasing irritation.
‘We’re nearing the ledge now,’ Pietro told me calmly, ‘currently, we’re around 5 kilometres down, so you’re going to see some even stranger things soon. But once we get into the crevasse, we will have far less company, so enjoy it while you can, it gets lonely down deep.’
Pietro was studying the small touch screen in front of him intently. It contained more sources of information than I cared to estimate. How he made sense of any of it, I couldn’t be sure. But I had to believe he knew what he was doing.
‘The fish down here look like Frankenstein’s monsters’ I said, trying despite myself to embrace his levity.
‘Evolution doesn’t favour beauty, my friend, but functionality. Remember, without our headlights, it would be pitch black down here, so they don’t need to look pretty. None of these creatures can see each other, which is probably just as well. Look, over there, it’s a flashlight fish. Now you have to admit that it is quite spectacular, if not beautiful.’
The flashlight fish was indeed rather exceptional. Its bright pink and green lights pulsated on and off, outlining its hideous chainsaw-like jaw which gaped eternally open. It appeared to have stakes driven through it at strange angles as if it had been speared by several crude fishing hooks and these were the only things holding its dismembered body together.
‘It looks like it’s been chopped up and put back together the wrong way,’ I said.
‘And yet it is perfect in nature’s terms,’ Pietro enthused, ‘perfectly adapted to conserve precious energy at these depths where oxygen is so scarce an organism can little afford to use it frivolously. You know it is bacteria that make it glow that way? It is called bioluminescence. During the few decades before Crisis Point, scientists were trying to work out ways to use bacteria for lighting homes. Around the time the last fossil fuels came out of the ground we were very close to making enormous breakthroughs.’ Pietro shook his head, lamenting the sad history our kind had lived through.
‘Crisis Point put an end to a lot of great work’ I said in an attempt at camaraderie, ‘let’s hope we can get some of that momentum going again.’
Another strange fish caught my eye. It had a strange looking appendage growing out of its back and spiraling up around it with the tapered end dangling just in front of its face.
‘The angler fish’ my tour guide continued, ‘its prey think that the growth from its back is food, and when they get right in front of it, it swallows them whole.’
‘What’s to eat down here anyway?’ I asked.
‘Anything and everything. A lot of what they eat is actually just the remains of fish from further up which have died and sink to the bottom. It’s basically all detritus.’
‘Charming.’ I pulled a face as I said this and Pietro laughed at me again. I would need to change the subject if my unease wasn’t to be a constant source of amusement to him and of humiliation to me. I wasn’t there to marvel at the sea creatures in any case. I wasn’t a biologist either. I was a government representative from the International Agency and we were on our way down to the midnight zone – the deepest level of the ocean – on government business, officially charged with solving a mystery.
I had been Chief Inspector at the Revised Pioneer Habitats Programme (RPHP) – one of International Agency’s core units – for three years and that particular year I’d received the most challenging brief in all my time at the organisation: to find out what had happened to the programme’s star vessel, The Nadir, which had gone missing in the midnight zone whilst carrying thirty of the best scientists we had left on the planet. Of these thirty, Dr Andrew Perrin was a close colleague of Dr Pietro de Laurentis. That’s why Pietro had so gladly offered to be my guide on this trip. For me, it was business; for him, it was personal. The Nadir had disappeared in those very waters two months earlier, and had been a publicity disaster for the programme and had damaged our hopes of finding new habitable areas for the remaining human population on Earth.
The situation on Earth’s surface had rapidly deteriorated in the previous years. Once, of course, all human beings lived on the surface, in a range of habitats and climates. But that was before Crisis Point in the year 2075. After that, the unlucky few were left to scavenge from its bare carcass whilst the supposedly luckier few were allocated a new Habitat through the Pioneer Habitats Programme (PHP), the predecessor of my unit.
The PHP had enjoyed tremendous initial success until the shattering of the biodome on the moon when almost nine thousand people perished when its plastic cover cracked and oxygen was lost. A mere eighty-five people from the original nine thousand in the biodome had made it back to earth alive in a light spacecraft. It was the beginning of the end for near-planet colonization and the PHP was quick to add the word ‘revised’ to its title. People had lost faith in what was supposed to be the greatest scientific achievement in human history. So, other environments were looked at, including the possibility of settling people in large submarine crafts on the ocean floor. After all, the ocean now covered over ninety per cent of the earth’s surface.
Since early in the twenty-first century we’d been journeying down to the bottom of the ocean in submersibles. At first, it was just a few intrepid (some would say, mad) scientists who went down there to gawp at the strange sea creatures and document the habitat. Many of the species had never been seen before at that time. Now, whole teams of people could travel down to depths that were previously inaccessible – the very deepest pockets of the ocean. A number of large, flat sand plains had been identified as potential sites for submarine crafts to be moored. These would be enormous mini-atmospheres, infused with oxygen, complete with micro-ecosystems and able to house up to 30,000 people each, should there be enough people left to populate them.
It was thanks to people like Pietro that our organisation could dare to hope for such a solution. Life since ‘Crisis Point’ had been tough and the general population lived in a state of despair, almost resigned to their fate. Yet Pietro and his colleagues, including Andrew Perrin, had fought on, determined that with further exploration, new habitats could be found. The International Agency’s mission was to fund and facilitate the most promising scientists. Most of these scientists had been focused on space but Dr De Laurentis and Dr Perrin were pioneers of the deep – they believed that humanity could return to the sea with enough effort.
It should have been obvious really. We were, after all, the descendants of creatures that had crawled out of the ocean. Yet, the oceans of our own planet had somehow seemed more frightening that the surface of other planets far away. We had long before lost our affinity for water. The pressure made traveling there almost impossible and its darkness and seemingly infinite vastness filled us with terror. Perhaps it was a kind of Freudian aversion to return to the womb that bore us. Whatever it was, it was necessity that had brought us back here as the Biodome tragedy had refocused attention on the waters that would soon swallow us whole anyway. We had too few other options left.
It was at the height of this rekindled optimism in the deep-sea project that The Nadir had gone missing without a trace in the midnight zone. The first few attempts to locate the vessel had been in vain as the search craft had experienced unprecedented radar trouble. After some consideration, it was decided that a smaller, two-person vessel would be better suited to the mission, as we could fit into the crevices in which it was assumed the broken bones of The Nadir were lying. And there we were, just Pietro and me, miles beneath the surface of the ocean in a tiny submersible named The Zenith, in a vain attempt, perhaps, to assure us we would not suffer the same fate as the craft we were seeking. She was ‘extra strong’ and ‘practically unbreakable’ we’d been assured. I’d have preferred if they had left ‘practically’ out of that sentence.
‘Here we are,’ chimed Pietro excitedly, ‘we are at the edge of the crevasse. We are going to start descending now, so wave goodbye to our friends.’
A couple of last zombie-like fish languished near the ledge, paralyzed by their evolutionary lack of bone, never having adapted the ability to propel their own bodies forward. Pietro shifted in his seat, leaning forward to examine his instruments more closely. We’d been traveling for an hour-and-a-half, and we were finally reaching our destination. It would be another two hours up to the surface, so we had no more than thirty to forty minutes to actually look around the opening of this fearsome crevasse where it was suspected the remains of the Nadir had become lodged.
‘This crevasse is the remains of an ancient volcano. If The Nadir had crashed in here, it is most likely she’d have become stranded fairly near the mouth because it is too narrow to have taken her all the way down. Hopefully, she will be largely intact.’
The crevasse was a narrow smile carved between two great expanses of sand. As we hovered above it momentarily, Pietro carefully manipulating the gear stick in preparation for the descent, I felt a great sense of panic. So far, our journey had been frightening due to the odd-looking sea creatures, but this was another realm. We were now descending into a place that was very different from the sand planes we were proposing to colonise. This was a strangely unnatural looking place. Pietro, though, seemed calm as he began to maneuver our vessel down through the thin lips of the crevasse. He turned the lights onto high beam and all around us I could see the knife-sharp ends of rock formations, like the teeth of a huge monster. There was a scraping noise beneath us and I recoiled slightly in my seat.
‘Don’t worry,’ he reassured me, ‘this vessel is very tough, but it’s a little tight in here, so we just might touch the sides occasionally.’
I could see that Pietro was doing a lot more steering now. From the surface down to the flat plains of sand, we’d basically been on autopilot and he had only to check his instruments to ensure we were on course. But now his piloting skills were being seriously tested, so I sat back and tried to relax, letting him get on with it. For several minutes, it was much of the same. Rocks, jagged and antithetical to our purpose jutted out only centimetres away from the windscreen. It was thoroughly claustrophobic and I began to feel slightly queasy. Yet, after only a few minutes, and without warning, we arrived at what seemed to be a large cavern with an ostensibly solid sandy floor.
‘Hmmm. This is very strange’ Pietro said, puzzled, ‘my data tells me this crevasse is much deeper than this. Perhaps this is just a rock ledge that has gathered sand. There must be another opening that can take us further down.’
We hovered for some moments and after examining his instruments, Pietro slowly started to move the vessel across the sandy floor, looking for another opening to lead us down further into the bowels of the rock formation.
That’s when I saw a swirl of sand to my right. ‘Look, I saw movement.’
Pietro looked up startled from his navigation system.
‘What? Where? There isn’t much that can live down here. It may be sand kicked up by our vessel.’
‘No really, something moved. It was over there, ten metres away.’ I was sure I wasn’t hallucinating. The light from our vessel didn’t carry far in this environment, but Pietro turned the vessel towards where I’d seen the eddy of sand and shone the lights directly at the wall of the cavern, which was composed of the same type of jagged rock we had seen all the way down. After several seconds of nothing and just when I was starting to feel a little embarrassed that I was going mad from claustrophobia, it happened again. Another swoosh of sand spiraled up from under the edge of the rock ledge. There seemed to be a space between the sandy floor of the cavern and the first layer of rock and that is where the sand was definitely moving.
‘No, it is not possible’ Pietro’s bewilderment was patent, ‘the pressure out there is too great. There can be nothing down here that is capable of movement – you saw those fish outside the crevasse, they were so torpid they could barely move, nothing could expend so much energy as to move so fast.’ Pietro, driven by his scientific curiosity over and above his rising anxiety, began to guide the vessel cautiously towards the ledge.
It was then that we saw it. As the sand settled, we could just make out the letters underneath the ledge of rock: The Nadir. It was the research submarine that had gone missing two months earlier, containing Dr Andrew Perrin and his associates.
‘Oh my God. That is it.’ Pietro’s voice was filled more with joy than trepidation. ‘We have found her. But how could she have become lodged under the rock that way? If The Nadir had lost power and fallen into the crevasse, she would be here, resting on this floor, out in the open, she could not have got lodged underneath the rock.’
It seemed to be becoming increasingly difficult for Pietro to maneuver our vessel. Despite his constant manipulation of the gear stick, The Zenith, rather than going forward, began to rock slightly from side to side, a movement uncharacteristic of our entire journey so far, and we seemed to have difficulty accelerating at all. Nonetheless, we managed to get close enough that our lights now illuminated one side of the stricken vessel. It was obvious that she had been broken into pieces, as there was no way such an enormous vessel could have become wedged under the rock ledge otherwise.
‘Someone must have done this, but how?’ Pietro’s voice was hollow. Before, he had been confident, his manner calm. Now, he sounded fearful and that unsettled me further. I was no longer in the company of a cool, calm scientist, laughing off my nervous reactions and assuring me everything was okay. He was just as inexperienced as me in this situation – and we were both being confronted by something totally impossible.
I peered through the glass as far as the bright lights from our submersible could reach. I could see that the name The Nadir appeared on what had been the side panel of the vessel, and indeed we could see that the edges had been ripped off. It was only a part of what had been a vessel large enough to hold thirty men and contain supplies for almost three months. Now, it had been stuffed into a narrow rock ledge no more than four metres high.
‘Where is the rest of it?’ Pietro whispered, almost to himself. At the edges of the metal was only pitch blackness. Who knew how deep that shelf extended or what was behind the façade of the stricken Nadir?
That’s when we saw him. It was a man, ostensibly human, emerging from inside the rock ledge behind the metallic wreck of the Nadir and shuffling through the sand towards us. He didn’t look like a real man. Though he was possessed of arms and legs and a torso and head, his skin was sallow, seemingly coated in a kind of humectant. He was naked for all I could tell, though his modesty was strangely protected due to his skin being so thickly coated in the glue-like substance. He had not a trace of hair anywhere on his body. His movements were in slow motion and his arms and legs seemed not to fully extend as he walked, he was buoyed by the submarine environment around him, a little like a foetus suspended in amniotic fluid. He seemed not fully in control of his muscles as he approached us and stood within a few feet of our sumbersible looking directly at us. Yet his eyes were somehow unfocused, and he seemed not really to see us, or to have any sense of recognition.
‘Oh my God. It’s Andrew.’ Pietro’s voice was hollow. What he was saying meant nothing. It was too impossible a revelation.
‘God damn it! How can it be Andrew?’ My voice sputtered out more highly-pitched and shaky than I’d ever heard it.
‘And he’s not alone. Look…’ Pietro’s eyes moved away from the man before us back towards the ledge.
Now, from behind the metallic façade of The Nadir a small army of men filed out: all formerly the world’s best scientists. Down here, as good as dead, their bodies scuffed around in the sand, unthinking yet somehow strangely spared from rot. All of them were covered in the same glue-like substance, preserving them in a strange state of mummification, as if they were specimens contained in formaldehyde inside a very large bottle. Though they were all looking in our direction, there was no sense of recognition on their faces. Looking closer, I could see that some of them had patches of skin that were so shriveled they appeared to be made from dried sausage. Others appeared to have had injuries – large gaping wounds – that had been healed by the salt water, yet were not entirely closed.
‘They don’t register us.’ Pietro said, ‘they have no independent brain function. It is unlikely that have actually seen us. They are just responding to stimulus. Our lights have attracted them, but they are all dead.’
He hesitated momentarily, then said ‘the laws of this place tell me that only one thing is possible.’
‘What?’ I tried to keep my voice stable but it trembled nonetheless.
‘At the bottom of the ocean, nothing goes to waste.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘I mean that humans can’t live here. But other organisms can, as we have seen on our way down. And these creatures are resourceful. They’ll eat anything, they’ll use anything, even if that means stealing the body of another organism. You know crabs? Many steal their shells from creatures that have discarded them. They are body snatchers in a way.’
‘You’re saying there’s a creature using their bodies?’
‘That’s exactly what I’m saying. None of them is alive. It’s below freezing out there, and the pressure would have imploded their internal organs as soon as their vessel ruptured. It is as if they are being guided by something – some big controlling hand.’
‘I don’t see anything controlling them, no hands, or arms, or tentacles or whatever you want.’ I was almost yelling. ‘Are you saying there’s some giant octopus here or something?’
‘This creature may be a little more sophisticated than what human mythology has managed to come up with.’
‘We’re going to die,’ I said plainly. Pietro remained silent. He glanced down at his controls, probably wondering if he should even bother to try to get us out of this situation now that we had apparently witnessed our own fate.
The men had by now nearly totally surrounded our vessel. Yet, after no more than a couple of minutes, and without us doing anything, the men stopped staring at us and started shuffling back towards the entrance of the rock shelf, first forming a cluster, then filing back in behind the metal side of the Nadir.
‘They’re not going to hurt us?’ I wondered out loud.
‘It seems not. They are just pawns. They are not our concern. What is our concern is whatever did this to them.’
He pulled at the gear stick, but still nothing happened. Our submersible had stalled completely.
‘It seems there is some kind of magnetic pull. My compass isn’t working and I’ve lost my depth readings too.’
‘Hell’ I said. I’d come here to solve a mystery and I’d succeeded yet I would not live to tell the tale. That was a slap in the face and almost worse than the fact I would die down here in a tiny glass bubble and that my rotting corpse would be used to do the work of an unidentified deep-sea monster.
‘It must be enormous,’ Pietro mused, ‘it is not only in that sea shelf, but I suspect it has pushed this sand up from the bottom of the ocean as well. This crevasse is supposed to be far deeper. The creature is living under us and all around us.’
‘But how come we haven’t detected it before?’ I asked.
‘Because they were all too busy with their space projects, exploring sterile environments wondering if we could bring them to life, whilst throughout the whole history of evolution there has been life under the sea – everything began here, even us, yet they have not financed us in order to be able to understand it. It seems we have left it too late.’ Again, Pietro tried to maneuver our vessel, but still, it didn’t budge. I felt sweat beading on my forehead.
‘We are no longer in control’ Pietro said. ‘Now, we must see whatever this creature wants to show us and be at its mercy.’ He looked back towards the ledge.
‘Keep trying’ I said, gesturing to the controls.
‘All my instruments are giving false readings. There is a magnetic force interrupting them, I will not be able to get us out even if I try as I will not know which instruments to trust. Besides, something has caused our submersible to stall. It is as if the vessel is being held in place – there is no mechanical fault which would have caused us to stall.’ He hesitated momentarily, before adding, ‘shall we say a prayer?’
I wasn’t at all religious. Most people on earth had abandoned religion as things went belly up, but a few had held onto the belief that this was still all some master plan devised by a greater power. It was a very different religion from that of our ancestors, of course, who had worshipped multiple gods and fought each other over nomenclature. I still didn’t want to pray to something I didn’t believe in. Yet somehow, sure that we were only moments from death, I felt obliged to indulge my companion for whom it seemed to hold some weight.
‘Okay.’ I said. We bowed our heads and sat in silence, Pietro no doubt praying more dutifully than me. I could only sit there in the stillness wondering what I would see on the other side. What, if any, cognition would I have as one of those deep-sea mummies?
Then there was movement again. A tremendous force lifted our submersible, at first with a sudden, nauseating jolt, then more steadily, across the sandy floor of the cavern, then up, precisely up, through the opening of the crevasse and back up past the jagged rocks to where we had begun our descent. Although we were moving fast – at least ten times faster than we had during our descent – not once did I feel the sides of the submersible scrape against the rocks. However good a pilot Pietro may have been, this one was far superior. We were being carried in the arms of the monster. We hadn’t seen its face nor any other part of it, yet it had lifted us up and was delivering us back to our world. It was setting us free, but it was also letting us know that it was sophisticated and powerful. Rather than take us that day, it wanted us to warn our fellow humans of its dominance.
Once out of the mouth of the crevasse, we continued moving, at a rather terrifying speed. Our submersible was literally being carried away from the crevasse and the motion made me dizzy and nauseous, as I had no time to acclimatize to the changing pressure. My ears were popping constantly and there was a deafening ringing in my head. I could barely make out the scenery around us through the blur of movement. After several seconds, we were finally put down on the same type of flat, expansive seabed we’d seen before entering the mouth of the crevasse. Then all was still and eerily silent.
Neither of us said anything for some time. We were both disorientated and queasy and Pietro was obviously as terrified as I was. After several minutes, when he’d regained his orientation, he began examining his instruments. I could hear his breathing was fast even above the thunderous beating of my own heart in my ears.
‘My readings are returning’ he said with some relief, ‘but we are a very long way from where we came down.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘My radar tells me we’re over four kilometres away from the spot where we descended into the crevasse. We’ve been carried some distance.’
My nausea was finally subsiding and I started to look around me. A hideous fish lolled in the water next to me and I smiled. I would have kissed it if I could have. What had appeared monstrous half an hour before was now comfortingly familiar and I felt closer than ever to my spineless deep-sea cousin.
‘Whatever carried us here was generating an enormous magnetic force field. To have pulled us out of that crevasse and carried us four kilometres in a matter of seconds indicates it is larger than any living creature we have ever encountered. It also seems to be able to manipulate magnetic fields at will as it interfered with our readings and stalled our vessel earlier.’
It wanted us to know it was there. It had commanded us silently to tell our people what it had told us. It may well have taken up many miles of space at the bottom of the ocean, leeching out from the core of the earth and reaching slowly upwards towards us. It was uninhibited, obscured from view and apparently growing exponentially. We thought that we had been the cleverest and fastest growing population on earth but we had always known that the earth’s surface that we inhabited covered a mere 30% of the earth’s surface at the height of our civilization. As sea levels rose, we had shrunk in numbers and now inhabited the remaining 10% of dry land. The sea had reclaimed us. And something had claimed the sea before we’d even had a chance to look.
We reached the surface safely, never having been happier to see our scorched earth. We reported what we had seen and it was rightfully met with horror. We told IDSEA and the International Agency that we had seen the wreck of The Nadir and the bodies of the missing scientists working on the sea floor, creating something new, but not on their own terms, and not with their own minds. We told them it was inevitable, for at the bottom of the ocean nothing goes to waste.
That was all before. What happened next made Crisis Point appear a mere hiccup, a small inconvenience before the onset of a much larger tragedy. What was to come would take us all by surprise, and would put an end to human civilization as we knew it.