We were just entering the hadal zone when we realised, we weren’t alone. For those of you who don’t know, the hadal zone is six thousand metres under the ocean. To put that into perspective, the twilight, or mesopelagic, zone – that’s where just one percent of the light from above reaches the depths – is just two hundred metres deep.
Now, you’re probably wondering, What about the bit where there’s no light at all? That would be the midnight zone you’re talking about. Otherwise known as the bathyal zone. That starts at around one thousand metres deep. And below that? Below the place where there’s nothing but darkness? Well, that’s where you’ll find the cheerfully named abyssal zone – sometimes referred to as the abyssopelagic zone. The abyssal zone starts at four thousand metres down. Just picture that. Go ahead, try. That’s as deep as Mount Elbert in Colorado is tall. Or Piz Bernina in the Western Alps. Or Toubkal in the High Atlas. Or whatever. Point is, it’s incredibly deep. So deep, that the water temperature is near freezing and is devoid of oxygen; it’s a death-trap for organisms that go there without the ability to return to the safer, oxygenated waters above. And it’s in perpetual darkness.
The hadal zone is below that. Sometimes referred to as the hadopelagic zone – named after Hades, of the mythological Greek underworld – the hadal zone exists in deep trenches at the bottom of the ocean’s floor. Most hadal zone areas are found, unsurprisingly, in the deepest of all the seas, the Pacific Ocean. It starts at approximately six thousand metres below sea level.
So, now, to say we weren’t alone shouldn’t be that surprising. After all, the oceans are positively teeming with life. You would expect to not be alone. But this… this was something else. This was something different entirely.
Coincidences are a funny thing, aren’t they? For example, the woman I fell in love with also happened to be the most skilled submarine pilot in the business. I could never have guessed when we first met in a bar, drunkenly discussing life, philosophy, and science, that we’d eventually be assigned to the same mission. Her, piloting the craft, me, as the expert scientist on board. Like I said, funny, huh? We didn’t even plan it, our career paths just crossed after our romantic paths had merged. There were a few meetings and discussions regarding ‘professional work environments’ and ‘separating emotion from our jobs’. We both swore that we’d uphold our duties first and foremost. It wasn’t a lie, either – we both take our jobs very seriously, and neither one of us would want to jeopardise the other’s career.
The pair of us had to undergo a few rigorous tests and examinations, in order to determine our mental health. We wouldn’t be down there too long, but it’s still very close quarters within the sub. Considering we were a couple outside of work, our bosses had to ensure that we wouldn’t bring our relationship into our jobs. Or, more specifically, into the sub we’d share for the better part of twenty-four hours. After all, a lot of money was going into the project.
The reason for our exploratory mission was relatively simple: we know so little about the very bottom of the ocean, and we’d like to know more. There were also other, grander ideas floating around. Thoughts of going where no man had gone before. Dreams of understanding our own planet better, in order to know how to deal with other planets. And, perhaps most importantly, hopes to find new organisms, possibly with novel compounds hidden away within their alien bodies – any new tools to fight the war against antimicrobial resistance.
I know, I know, you just rolled your eyes, didn’t you? Undoubtedly, you’ve heard scientists bleating on about antimicrobial resistance, and you understand it… but from my experience, very few grasp the gravity of the situation. I’ve heard people grumbling about not being prescribed antibiotics by their doctors, yet when the conversation moves to resistance, eyes glaze over.
You see, our antibiotics are starting to no longer have the effect they once had. And that’s a huge problem. Take tuberculosis, for example. Currently, we can treat TB with antibiotics, but those antibiotics are gradually getting less and less efficient, as the bacteria develop a resistance to them. The thought of untreatable TB is positively terrifying – if you aren’t scared of that idea, you aren’t paying attention. Back in its heyday, tuberculosis accounted for one in four deaths. One in four. Twenty five percent. A quarter of all deaths. Now, we have it under control, but for how long?
Quite a lot of the antibiotics we use are obtained from nature – we observe different plants and animals, look at what compounds they use in their daily lives, and see which ones could be useful for us as humans. For example, invasive plant species are quite useful, as they are well-equipped with tools for handling various environments; we’ve acquired several novel antibiotics from such organisms. However, the rate at which our current antibiotics are becoming useless is fast outpacing the rate at which we find new antibiotics. Meaning, at some point soon, we will have no line of defence against infectious diseases. It might not happen tomorrow, or next year, but soon enough that we should all be concerned.
Which brings us to our mission. One of the main reasons why we’re descending into the depths of Challenger Deep. You see, at the bottom of the seabed are hydrothermal vents – places where geothermally heated water is spewed out. The environments here are extreme, and yet, live thrives in the surrounding areas. These microorganisms that bloom in the intense heat and pressure might hold unique properties; properties we can utilise in our never-ending fight against disease. It’s a long shot – definitely – but we now have the funds and the technology to investigate, and so, we have no choice. It would be irresponsible to not explore the ocean’s depths with this goal in mind.
Of course, you might ask, Won’t the novel antimicrobial compounds you find down there eventually also become useless? And the answer to that is, possibly. But I don’t have a solution for that. I specialise in the fields of marine biology and biochemistry – all I can do is help to fight the tide of antimicrobial resistance. Granted, it does feel a bit like bailing out a sinking ship with nothing but a bucket, and for every volume of water removed twice as much floods in, but greater minds than mine will have to solve that particular riddle.
The point I’m trying to make is, Gale and I didn’t just go down there on a silly whim. We went with good intentions, with the goal of contributing something to mankind. We wanted to help.
I keep that thought in my heart, telling myself that we didn’t die for no reason.
Our communication systems cut out at around five and a half thousand metres down. They shouldn’t have; we tested them exhaustedly and found them to be working to full expectations. It was a smart underwater acoustic signalling system developed by an Australian company. Well made. And yet, it died before we’d reached the end the abyssal zone.
“Michael, can you reach topside?” asked Gale, as our vessel dropped through the void. Outside the sub, the waters were blacker than black. Try to imagine darkness. No doubt, you’re picturing shadows and gloom – the middle of the night. That’s not darkness. Not real darkness. True darkness is down at the bottom of the ocean; it’s the utter absence of light. Nothing but a wall of blackness, pushing in from all sides. Except for our submersible’s flood lights, that illuminated the surrounding areas.
She turned to face me in her chair. There were two seats within the dome of the vessel, allowing both passengers to see outside. It was very cramped, however. I was glad I was sharing the space with Gale, as opposed to someone else. “Comms are gone, I can’t reach topside. Can you check? Might be my headset.”
I admittedly hadn’t been paying too much attention to the conversation and chatter. It had been mostly Gale and the topside engineers discussing depths, pressure readouts, fuel, and that sort of thing. Besides, I had been preoccupied with the smorgasbord of life that I’d been documenting during our descent. Monkfish, Marrus orthocanna, anglerfish with lightbulbs dangling from their heads, ugly-yet-fascinating blobfish, goblin sharks, bubblegum corals, big red jellyfish, giant tube worms (indicating that we were in the right place for thermal vents), and cookie cutter sharks. I even thought I’d spotted a giant pacific octopus, just on the edges of the bloom of our flood lights. As we got even deeper, the life outside got even stranger: squidgy looking dumbo octopi, bright red Atolla jellyfish, writhing sea pigs, and monstrous looking fangtooths. Despite my hopes, I’d not caught a glimpse of the elusive megamouth shark.
I spoke into my headset but got no response. “No, I can’t reach anyone either.”
Gale swore. “That shouldn’t have happened.” She sighed. “Well, I guess we keep going without comms. We did train for this scenario, after all.”
“Yep,” I said, trying to stay upbeat. “That’s why we have plans in place. Perhaps a whale or something is currently swimming between us and the ship?”
Gale shook her head. “Maybe, I guess? I mean, I doubt it’d affect us this much, but maybe… It doesn’t change the mission, anyhow.”
We continued our descent through the abyssal zone, each working in silence. Gale operated the vessel smoothly, and I recorded my findings, jotting thoughts and ideas next to sketches of animals. Some were rare species; others were completely new – almost every trip to the ocean’s depths pulls back the curtain on something never seen before. And so, we dropped, into the depths, dead headphones still adorning our heads. Despite the lack of comms with topside, the journey was peaceful.
Until we reached the hadal zone.
Rat-tat-tat-tat. A knocking noise came from the back of the submersible. Although the sound was oddly uniform, I didn’t say anything, as I assumed it was noise from the sub’s outer metal as the pressure increased during our descent.
We continued to drop, silence blanketing us. Rat-tat-tat-tat. Rat-tat-tat-tat. A metallic clanging sound on the outside of the submersible. Neither one of us spoke, although I could practically feel the cogs turning in Gale’s mind – what was that? Was something breaking? Had something gone wrong? Was our vessel actually unable to withstand the stress of being so far under the waves? Had the engineers made a mistake? Rat-tat-tat-tat.
“Michael,” said Gale, voice barely above a whisper. “Do you hear that?”
“Yeah, wasn’t that just the sound of the ship adjusting? Y’know, the amount of pressure we’re under?”
“No,” responded Gale in a very quiet voice. “I know what that sounds like. Something is knocking against the side of the vessel.”
“A fish, maybe?”
“No, they’re too small, we wouldn’t—”
Our vessel lurched forward violently.
“What was that?”
“I don’t know!”
The engines of the sub whined angrily, and the vessel shuddered. “Gale, talk to me!”
“Nnh. We’re… stuck,” she said through gritted teeth.
“Well, unstuck us, Gale!” I said, feeling panic starting to brim within my chest.
“I’m trying, Mike! Something’s got a hold of us!”
As if on cue, the sound returned once more. Rat-tat-tat-tat! I swore.
“Mike, you’re the expert, what the hell could it be?”
I wracked my brain. “I— I don’t—”
“It could be a giant squid!” I said at last. The thought of all those arms and tentacles wrapping around our small submersible did not ease my growing claustrophobia. “It’d be big enough to grab us, I guess…”
Gale growled and pushed the vessel forward. The sub’s engines were buzzing like angry insects. “Gale, the engines…” I said. “Gale, I think—”
I didn’t get to finish my sentence. A loud metallic crunch came from above and behind us. Before either one of us could remark, our submarine was pulled downwards.
I don’t remember much of what happened next, and Gale won’t describe it. I think I passed out from a potent mixture of descending too rapidly and a sudden increase in pressure. Our vessel was designed to withstand the strain of the ocean floor – but it was meant to reach those depths gradually.
When I came to, we were resting on the seabed, and Grace was flicking switches and bashing buttons with reckless abandon. “Come on, come on,” she was hissing. “Start!”
“Engine’s gone,” was all she would say.
Gale slumped back in her chair and blew a strand of hair from her face. “For all intents and purposes, as far as the onboard computer is concerned, we just lost both engines. They’re not even powered off. They’re gone. Removed. Excised.”
I let the words sink in, as I stared out into the abyss. Nothing was stirring. Bits of debris floated through the bloom of our flood lights. “And comms to topside?”
I paused, thinking. My head was throbbing angrily. I wondered whether something inside had popped. Finally, I said, “There’s no possible chance of rescue, is there?”
“No. This is the only vessel that can currently withstand the pressure. The only people they’ll be sending will be to rescue the sub, and it’ll probably take them a year to get down here, at that. The components required—”
Something darted across our field of vision.
“What was that?”
“I don’t know, I didn’t—”
Bzzt. Our flood lights flickered. Bzz-bzzt. A fuzzy electronic murmuring came from the walls of our submersible. Bzzt.
“Oh, no…” said Gale, just as our lights went out. When the darkness flooded in, it was cold and all encompassing. Gale let out a little scream, as did I.
We sat in the silence for a second, listening to the thudding of our hearts. I could feel my pulse in my eardrums, loud and aggressive. I could hear Gale’s heavy breathing. My own breath was rushing like a waterfall.
And then, as we both knew it would, the sound returned. Rat-tat-tat-tat.
Gale groaned. “Oh, what is it? What is it, Mike?”
“I have no idea, Honey, I really don’t. I’m sorry.”
She sighed. “No, I’m sorry.”
“There’s no need for you to—”
Rat-tat-tat-tat. The sound was then followed by another noise. In many ways, the second sound was worse. Clink! Even in the inky blackness, I knew the dome of the vessel was breaking. It shouldn’t. Not ever. It was brilliantly designed and tested – it could withstand over seventeen thousand pounds of pressure per square inch. And yet… Clink!
The lights flickered back on again.
For a second, we were both too stunned to scream. I tried to, I really tried, but the air seemed to be caught within my chest. It took my brain a moment to register what I was seeing; it was so confusing and utterly wrong.
And then the flood lights buzzed out again. This time, for good.
The thick dome has cracked more and more. I can’t see the splits that are undoubtedly spreading across the transparent material like spiderwebs, but I can hear them. It won’t be long before the pressure becomes too great, and our submersible is finally compromised. I don’t want to imagine what will happen next, although I have a pretty good idea.
Back when we were topside, Gale asked me if I was afraid. I had told her, “No. Because even if I die, I’ll die doing what I love best… being by your side.”
Blindly, I reached over and took Gale’s hand. At first, I felt her tensing up at the sensation of being touched in the darkness, but then she felt the familiar shape of my hand and squeezed it tight.
“What do we do, Michael?” she asked, tears audible in her words.
Clink! The outer dome fractured some more. My ears popped painfully. I thought I could feel blood trickling out of my ears and nose. Rat-tat-tat-tat! The knocking came again. Rat-tat-tat-tat! The image of the thing that was just outside our vessel entered my mind. Knocking, knocking, knocking. (Little pig, little pig, let me in.) I pushed the thought away and filled my mind with love. I let it pour into me, filling me from my toes up, warming me like a coffee on a rainy day or a hot chocolate on a winter’s night.
“Did I ever tell you about the love of my life?” I asked her.
“No, what was her name? I’m jealous of her. I’d kill her if I met her.”
I chuckled. “Oh, she was a nerdy science type, just like me. We clicked instantly. She piloted submarines.”
“Well, la-di-da, Miss Fancy-Pants. Couldn’t get a normal job like the rest of us?”
“I know, right? Well, anyway, her name was Gale—”
She exhaled audibly. “Such a bland name.”
“I always thought it was pretty.”
“Men are idiots.”
“No word of a lie,” I said, smiling into the nothingness. “I truly was an idiot for her. I even planned to make her Mrs. Fancy-Pants. If she’d let me.”
A thoughtful silence. “I would’ve said yes.”
“I know you would’ve.”
Rat-tat-tat-tat! And then: Clink! Cra-ack!
“I love you, Mike.”
“I love you too, Gale. Squeeze my hand. Hard.”
She did. I could sense her gritting her teeth and squeezing her eyes shut. “I’m scared, Mike.”
“Me too, Honey.”
“It’s better being with you, though. Everything is better with you.” That made me smile, despite the impending doom.
“Even down here, Gale, at the bottom of the Mariana Trench… you’re still my sunshine.”
16th January 2020
Written for Reedsy’s weekly Short Story Contest