Treading Water

Artwork by Joshua Insole

“It was supposed to be a sunny day,” you say to yourself, as the rain lashes against the window which has cracked into a spiderweb. Your voice barely sounds like your own, and you almost don’t recognise it at first — it also has a wavering, trembling quality to it that you don’t particularly like. You say these words to yourself because you are the only one in the room, and possibly the only one left in the whole facility. The precise fate of many of the others is unknown, but you know how a few of them went, oh yes

You feel a judder as the entire structure vibrates. This is not just the shaking of a wave hitting the scaffolding — you’re well used to that — this is something more. Somewhere, deep below the surface of the water, something explodes. The sound is dampened by the ocean to a faint crump, but you feel the oh so wrong shaking as the entire building starts to slowly lean drunkenly to one side: ever so slightly but incredibly noticeably.

You’re trying to think what to do, but your thoughts are scattered — a whirlwind of panicked and half-baked ideas. What’s the best way to die? you wonder. Which is the least unpleasant death available to me? Trying to pin a precise line of thinking down is like trying to catch a scrap of paper in a hurricane as the swirling debris encircles and assaults you. Do I stay? Get crushed with this place? Possibly burned to death, possibly drowned, possibly flattened by the imploding structure? You look around your surroundings at the corners and walls and sides of the room: metal girders, thick bolts, sharp edges, bits of rust. You look at the dome through which you’ve been staring for the past — what, hour? Ten minutes? Thirty seconds? Time’s lost all meaning for you, now — however long; more big bolts and chunky metal. The thought of that sheeting racing towards you doesn’t sound pleasant, nor does the notion of all those bolts firing off (ping! Ping! Ping!) in your direction, like oversized bullets.

And then something quick and black darts across your field of vision in the waters outside your window. It was barely a shadow, a mere silhouette, but you saw it. If you hadn’t seen the things you’ve seen, you might chalk it up to imagination. But you know better, now. Unfortunately. Ignorance is bliss, isn’t it? Or do I risk it out there? The risk of drowning is equally as likely. And there’s also the risk of them. Can’t forget them. No matter how much you’d like to, you think.

Oh, what you’d give to just black out now, and have done with it. Perhaps if you were braver you could do the thing, but you know you can’t, no matter how dire the situation gets. You just know you don’t really have it in you, and you’d chicken out at the last second. No point trying to kid yourself, you’ve nothing to prove to anyone else because you’re probably all that’s left out here.

The metal around you groans miserably, like some irritated behemoth who is pain. It’s a twisting, screeching, shearing sound. The type of noise you hope to never hear whilst in a large structure. It’s the melody of all hell breaking loose, of all hope shattering, of your impending doom, of the fragility of life and the egotism of man. There’s another detonation somewhere — this one much louder and clearer, probably above the water, by your estimations — and an alarm begins to sound. Eee! Eee! Eee! Eee! Eee!

“It’s about time,” you tell the alarm, matter-of-factly. “You should’ve come on an hour or so ago. Not that it’d have made much difference, anyhow.”

The alarm, to its credit, does not falter or pause its cry. Eee! Eee! Eee! Eee! Eee!

You’re so focused on your conversation with the screeching thing on the ceiling (and your recent preoccupation with the notion that your sanity might be starting to crack) that you almost didn’t notice the water seeping into the room. You certainly don’t see it — your eyes are locked on the window — but you do feel the sudden icy splash as the brine laps over your shoes. You gasp, taking a step back and raising one foot, as if you suddenly discovered your hidden ability to hover mid-air. Alas, that talent remains hidden, for now at least; the black liquid races into through the door, spraying up your legs and sloshing into the corners of the room.

“Oh God,” you groan to yourself. You thought you had more time. More time to do what? your mind asks. More time to stand around doing nothing, deciding nothing? Clearly the last explosion took out something major, for it’s only been about thirty seconds and already the water’s up to your ankles. Your mind races, what to do, what to do, dammit, what to do?

You’ve heard stories about people who’ve almost drowned and it sounds like hell — burning lungs, swallowing water, body screaming for the oxygen that it’s being deprived of, water rushing into your mouth when you open it, your screams dampened by the water that’s pressing in at you from all sides, your flailing limbs heavy and slow as if moving through treacle, the corners of your vision darkening and dimming as your life fades. It’s a slow death, an eternity for the one experiencing it. Utter agony. It’s one of your greatest fears, joint first place along with being burned alive.

And being eaten alive.

Eee! Eee! Eee! Eee! Eee! The alarm blares. Hussshhhh, the water races into the room. And still you linger, your eyes darting back and forth across the window, searching for a sign of them, anything to give you excuse to linger. “It was perfectly sensible for them to choose to remain,” you imagine the others saying when they find you and an enquiry is made, “leaving would have been madness, with those monsters outside your window.” But of course, you don’t see anything. Nothing but an endless expanse of navy blue. Your brain races and arrives at the only conclusion available: if you stay, it’s certain death. No ifs, no buts — you will die. Either from an explosion, or the collapse, or from drowning. You know how isolated you are out here, help will come, but not before the place has crumbled. If you take your chances in the open water, however, you might stand a chance.

You take one last desperate glance around the room that had served as your quarters for the better part of a year, and then start to rip off your clothes. The shoes go first, you kick them away. Next the shirt. Then the jeans. If only I hadn’t left my wetsuit in the lab, your brain cries as the gooseflesh prickles up all over your body, but it’s too late for regrets. The clothes have to go — the weight of them when soaked will drown you — you have to chance it that you won’t freeze to death in the waters before rescue arrives. If they haven’t gotten to me before then, that sly voice whispers at the back of your mind, snakelike, before you push it away.

You stand there, naked except for your underwear and the lanyard around your neck, from which your ID tags dangle. After a moment’s hesitation, they go too. You catch a glimpse of your own image along with the words SHARK RESEARCH TEAM as they drop to the floor. “Not anymore,” you whisper through gritted teeth. Before you leave your room, you snatch the two objects from the nightstand — which has begun to float, bobbing up and down — to take with you. A whistle and a torch, both of them waterproof. Food? your mind asks, you’ve got some snacks squirrelled away somewhere, not much, but something, but then another explosion rocks the facility and the groaning of the metal support beams turns to a scream. “No time,” you grunt, dashing for the exit, feet splashing noisily through the water that’s now almost up to your knees. “No time.”

As you explode from your room out into the corridor, you truly understand the scale of the event. The whole place is tilted almost thirty degrees to the side — so much that you keep sliding down to the edges where the floor and the wall meets, as you slosh your way through the invading water that’s now waist height.

Half swimming and half running you dash for the nearest exit. The location has been burned into your mind; you’ve used it a thousand times since being stationed out here. It used to lead to a deck several storeys above the water, but you’re guessing that’s no longer the case. You catch a glimpse of one of your friends and work colleagues in their room and for a moment your hopes flare — you’re not alone! You don’t have to face this alone! But then you survey the scene and the crushing understanding dawns on you, and you push onwards, leaving them in their grave. “I’m sorry,” you say, as you stumble down the corridor, holding onto the wall for support. “I’m so sorry.”

The doorway to the outside looms ahead. Usually, sunshine falls gently through its open mouth. Now, the lashing rain gushes in, dimpling the frothing water that’s flowing in with all the force of blood jetting out of a punctured artery. You see that the water is black. It’s so black, it might as well be tar. How the hell will I see them? How will I see them in that? And then the insidious voice worms its way to the forefront of your mind: Perfect camouflage.

You force yourself to keep moving, trying to ignore the fact that all of your senses are screaming at you to stop, for the love of God, stop! You push against the rapidly moving water, gritting your teeth as you fight your way forward, it’s tough going but not yet impossible. You know it’s only a matter of time, however.

You reach the doorway and for a second you get the dizzying notion that directly outside is the ocean — the metal decking gone, along with the rail that used to stop you from falling off the side. You feel a pang of vulnerability, of nakedness, of being exposed, and then you spy the decking just beneath the surface of the water. Not gone, still there. “Just,” you tell the open sea. It won’t be long before the exit — which used to be several feet above the water — will be beneath the waves.

Standing in the doorway for a moment, you feel the rain peppering your nude body, the whipping wind chilling your bones. The waves aren’t as bad as they have been, but they don’t look particularly inviting, either. You scan the frothing waves, searching for a dorsal fin, for a splash, for a tail, a flash of white, a lingering shadow — anything. But you see nothing, nothing but raging seas and bruised skies.

The floor beneath your feet shudders violently and you have to grip the side of the doorframe to stop from stumbling forward into the water. You know it won’t be long before the entire damn facility goes crashing into the sea, dropping into the depths — whether you are still around or not. You also are keenly aware that the collapsing building will try to pull you down with it, sucking the water inwards in one final claw of death, seeking as many lives as it can grasp before it goes crashing to its grave.

Time to go.

Gingerly, you step out onto the deck, and the feeling of defencelessness is amplified. You’re now almost chest deep in the water, and your mind can’t help but play images of lurking beasts swimming about you invisibly, waiting to strike. Your entire body is screaming at you to stop this madness, to go back inside, it won’t all collapse, surely it won’t, it was designed well. As the primal parts of your brain are scrambling for control, trying to force you back inside, the cold, logical part of you shuts it down. No, you tell yourself, it’s collapsing. I’ll drown. It’s this or drowning. And I don’t want to drown. You take another step, fighting yourself. And another. And another.

And now you’re at the rail. It’s not brilliantly visible, as it’s underwater, but you can feel it, after groping around in the blackness for a moment. The water out here feels even colder somehow, less inviting, more unforgiving. You shiver, not for the first time that afternoon, and certainly not for the last time, either.

And then, you do the thing you swore to your mother that you’d never do for as long as you were stationed at Delta Labs; you start to climb over the rail. Slowly, gently, carefully. “Don’t go getting yourself eaten!” she’d said, jokingly. How painfully accurate that joke seemed to be, now. You try to not splash the water too much, to not cause too many vibrations — you don’t want to attract their attention.

Standing atop the rail, pausing before climbing down the other side and into the open ocean, you slow your breathing, feeling your heart hammering within the confines of your chest. You know they can sense heartbeats, can hear stress, as insane as it sounds. “The ultimate killing machine,” your marine biology professor had told you during your first university lecture — the moment during which you realised you wanted to work with these animals. Do you regret it? you ask yourself. Do you regret it? You have no answer.

Body thrumming with nervous energy, you begin lowering yourself down the other side of the rail, down into the open ocean. Ka-RUMP! On the other side of the facility a detonation sends a tower of flames into the sky, along with shards of metal and glass, and other miscellaneous debris. Bits of smouldering remains shower down around you, a few small particles striking you, stinging and burning. Nothing major, however, you’ll live, for now — although you are distinctly aware that you might be bleeding in several places. The metal rail shudders beneath you, and the facility releases a gigantic groan as it sinks further into the abyss.

You close your eyes and count down from ten, whispering under your breath. “Ten, nine, eight, seven, six—” the rail rattles as something strikes it, this one doesn’t feel like an explosion “—five,” you continue, almost whimpering, “four, three, two…”

You let go of the rail, and plop down into the water with more noise than you’d intended, cringing at the smacking sound, at the slap of the water against your skin. Did they hear it? Do they smell me? Did they sense the vibrations? Can they already taste the few droplets of my blood? You realise that the answer to all of the questions lies somewhere between ‘maybe’ and ‘probably’.

You push away from the ledge, not seeing the facility dropping away beneath you, but sensing it all the same. Lightly but strongly, you begin to kick, swimming on your back, away from the sinking structure. The waves swell and rise, but you manage to stay afloat — for the time being, at least. You’re not even struggling in the water, as you feared you might, in fact, you feel as if you could do this all day. Don’t get cocky, you remind yourself. You’ve got a few hours out here before it’s all over. Conserve your energy. Kick, stroke, kick, stroke. Don’t splash too much. You know you need to get far enough away from the place so that it doesn’t drag you down as it goes, but stay close enough so that you can be found, when help does indeed come. Hopefully the currents won’t pull you too far off course.

Not for the first time, you wonder whether the commotion of the catastrophe is attracting others, more and more. There’s certainly enough blood and meat stored inside the decaying building to garner more than enough attention. Or will the ones that you held in pens scare the others away, with their aggressive personalities and their freakish mutations? With their increased size and their keener senses and reflexes?

You don’t know. You just don’t know.

You keep swimming until you reach the point at which you feel no longer in danger of being sucked down with the imploding building. You look around yourself as the waves rise and fall and the rain pelts your face. It’s hard to say for sure, but you think that you’re currently hovering above where the tiger shark pens used to be. It doesn’t reassure you.

Not too far away, Delta Labs is now mostly submerged and ablaze, thick black plumes of smoke billowing up into the late afternoon sky. Behind you, the sound of the water being delicately splashed (plink!) sends a shockwave into your soul. You spin around to see nothing but rumbling waters. It could have been just a sloshing wave. Or it might not’ve been, your brain insists. You’ve come to terms with the fact that the snakelike voice in your head will be your inner mind’s primary resident for the next few hours.

So, now you’re here, all alone in the ink black ocean.

Waiting for rescue to come.

Waiting for the predators from the depths.

Treading water.


23rd June 2020

Written for Reedsy’s Weekly Writing Contest

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