's 2018 Horror Write-off:


Submitted by D. Sierra

Have you ever heard of saturation diving? It’s a way to let divers work in the deep ocean for extended amounts of time. Basically, the divers live in a pressurized environment when they’re not in the water. Whether it’s a pressure chamber, submarine, diving bell, or whatever, the ambient pressure inside means that you only have to go through decompression when you’re done and go back to the surface. It’s the kind of job where you spend all day five hundred feet below sea level, fixing stuff with only a few other divers and assorted fish for company.

Anyway, that’s what they recruited us from. Me and a few other divers got a pretty vague email about a job working for some marine research organization, with few details save that it would involve testing new equipment and that the pay was really good. I must have been one of the first people to respond because less than a full day later I got a phone call asking me to come to the city to talk in person. “The city” was a two hour plane ride down the coast, but they offered to pay for the ticket. I guess they really needed sat divers, and there’s not very many of us. For some reason, it isn’t exactly a popular job. The ‘interview’ was in a big, warehouse-looking building with a sign proclaiming it to be Triton Labs. They basically just ran down my qualifieds and made me agree not to talk about it if I decided to turn the job down. I needed the cash, and I was pretty curious at this point, so that wasn’t likely. The interviewer went on:

“Do you know what an ADS system is, Mr. Moreno?” “Can’t say I’ve heard of one, no.” “An atmospheric diving suit. In essence, it’s a submarine shaped like a bodysuit. They’re used to work at depths so extreme even regular saturation diving won’t cut it. They also maintain an internal pressure, meaning decompression is less of a concern” “How deep we talkin’? I’ve done jobs at 800, 900 feet.” “Significantly deeper. The deepest open ocean dive accomplished with an ADS system presently is over 2,000 feet. We’ve developed and lab-tested a suit that more than doubles that.” I whistled. “That’s ridiculously deep. The pressure alone-” He cut me off. “-We’re aware of the risks Mr. Moreno. That being said we’ve tested our system in pressure chambers and it doesn’t even begin to stress until the pressure found around 4,500 feet. We’ve lab-tested the things as much as possible, but at this point we need to start field testing.”

I was surprised, to say the least. It made sense that they wanted sat divers, if only because they probably guessed we were the only ones who were the right kind of crazy to try this. It sounded insane, but I honestly wasn’t ready to turn him down. I wanted the full details, so I told him to continue.

“This job, should you take it, is actually twofold. We’ve been studying an area we’re calling the Pontus Oceanic Plateau, which is essentially an flat plain sitting some 3,500 feet deep. As the name may have given away, it’s actually quite a bit higher than most of the surrounding area, which drops down to almost 8,000 feet on all sides. We would very much like to collect samples from it, and we believe that human divers in our new ADS system would do so with far less risk of damaging the samples than a submarine might.” “Samples, huh? What, you want us to try to catch fish down there?” "Not quite.” The interviewer had an odd look pass over his face for a moment, before going on: “Are you a man of science, Mr. Moreno? No, I wouldn’t have expected so. At 3,500 feet, in the bathypelagic zone, there is absolutely no sunlight. That’s why the common name for it is the ‘Midnight Zone’. But somehow, on the Pontus Oceanic Plateau, there is plant life. This strange sort of seaweed, which we can’t quite figure out. It has no chlorophyll, obviously. But it’s quite fragile, so to our dismay we’ve yet to bring up any sample that gives us meaningful insight.”

I didn’t like his condescending tone, but goddammit I was getting more and more curious. How many people could say they’d personally walked on the floor of the deep sea? I had a couple more questions before I’d make a solid decision though: “So will we be staying in a sub, or what? When we aren’t suited up, I mean. And for how long?” “We’ve set up an underwater habitat. A sea base, if you prefer. It’s capable of sustaining a crew of five, and there will only be four of you. We’ll resupply it via aquatic drones every other day around noon. As for how long, the target mission length is five days. The suits hold a charge for about six hours, and we just want you to go out once a day for ninety minutes. The habitat has the capacity to charge the suits, and the drones can bring backup power supplies if necessary. We’ll get you there and back via submarine.” I had one final question: “So you mentioned there’s no light down there. What are you doing about lighting, cause I’m not sure I’m comfortable using handhelds at such an extreme depth.” “Not to worry. The suits have four lights each, one on each shoulder and one on either side of the head. It wouldn’t be a very good research and exploration tool with no light sources, now would it?”

That settled it for me. Between the amazing pay and the chance to do something no one had ever done, I was in. The interview went on a little longer, just discussing details and signing some papers. There would be about two weeks of training to use the suits in a ‘depth pool’ in the back of the Triton Labs building, and then we’d be off. They put me up in a hotel room for those two weeks, and I got to meet the other three brave souls who’d taken the job with me. There was Harris, who’d actually worked for Triton before and had helped them test the suits in their lab. There was Gao, who I’d worked a job with almost a year ago putting in underwater cables. Always nice to already know a guy you’re about to work with, right? And there was Foster, who’d been a sat diver for almost fifteen years and joked that he was getting too old for it (he was in his late thirties). I guess it was only kind of a joke, a lot of people who do this really do stop around then.

Well, I was a little surprised when I first saw the suits. I was expecting something like a big metal exoskeleton, but that wasn’t really the case. They were bulky, for sure, but they were more rounded spheres than hard edges. They were made out of some kind of flexible material that felt more like rubber or semi-soft plastic than metal. Dr.Callas, the engineer lady who started acting as our point of contact with Triton, said the ADS suits were made from some kind of nanomaterial originally intended for spacesuits. Based on some offhand comments she made to Harris, I think they were still considering it for spacesuits if the ADS suits held up. It seemed like she must have been pretty involved in designing the things, with how invested she was in them doing well.

The training went by without a hitch, and then it was go time. We were on a boat for two and a half days before getting on a submarine to the ‘Pontus Oceanic Plateau Research Habitat’ (we started just calling it POP Base). We suited up before going down, and it felt pretty strange being in a submarine in these bulky, white and yellow suits. Luckily for us, the suits had communications systems installed in the helmets so we could talk to each other. There was basically a button you nudged with your chin to turn the mic on and off. There weren’t viewports for us in the sub, so we spent a lot of the ride down speculating on what exactly was waiting for us down there.

“So. Are y’all nervous?” asked Harris over the comms. “I’d have to be stupid not to be” replied Foster “but you don’t do this if you let ‘nervous’ stop you.” “You guys might be nervous” said Gao with the tonal equivalent of a shrug “I think it’s pretty cool, honestly.” I had to agree with Gao. I was a little nervous, just from the depth, but more than anything I felt like what I imagined the astronauts felt like on their way to the moon. We were on our way to a place where no human being had ever walked, and we’d experience a place just as alien to us as another planet.

After around an hour, Dr.Callas’ voice chimed over our helmet comms, telling us to move to the airlock room because we’d arrived. The sub had the same sort of airlock chamber as we’d been told POP Base did and we’d been warned to, in the base, stay in the suits until the chamber gave the all-clear. This was because the suits maintained our pressure, so the airlock room wouldn’t properly decompress an unsuited person. So we lumbered into the airlock and waited to see what would await us outside.

Once the airlock was pressurized, and filled with water, the hatch opened. We were greeted with a sandy seabed, illuminated by the lights on the submarine. About thirty or forty feet from us sat what looked like a stack of neon yellow tubes which we knew from our training to be POP Base. There was a big hatch on the boxy construction on the bottom, which we recognized as the base airlock chamber’s entrance. It was lit on all sides by high-intensity lights which managed to penetrate maybe thirty feet into the abyssal darkness surrounding it. If not for the submarine lights and the suit lights, it seemed like even this close to us we might not have been able to see it. All in all, it did nothing to dampen my feelings of being an explorer on an alien world.

Once more, Dr.Callas’ voice came through the helmets. “Ok team, please proceed to base exterior. Familiarize yourselves with the terrain, as this is field test one. You’ll be staying out of the habitat for the next sixty minutes, as we want the first field test to be a little shorter than the next few days’ worth. Don’t worry about samples for now, and please stay within visual range of the habitat.” Harris’ voice crackled over the comms “Loud and clear, doc. Suits holding up just fine.”

So we made our way to the base. We were every bit as odd a sight as every other part of this watery abyss, four ponderous creatures appearing more mechanical than human. We knew from training that while swimming was possible in the suits, it wasn’t much faster than swimming unaided, and ‘walking’ on the bottom was usually simpler. I looked around, and in the base’s light I could see more than just sand and rock. There were thin, pink starfish scattered sporadically around, along with a handful of stubby little anemones whose arms were twice the length of their bodies. In a few places, fanlike yellow corals rose up to two feet out of the seafloor. A large, blocky rock lay near the edge of the rough circle of light provided by the base.

“Looks… sparse.” said Harris over the comms. “It’s the deep sea, you think a lot of shit wants to live here?” replied Foster. “Man I don’t know, I guess I was expecting some kinda deepwater reef from how excited the eggheads were about it.” “You guys ever see any neat stuff on your other dives?” I asked.

There was a moment of silence while people thought back on previous dives. The ability to talk in these suits was honestly a godsend, especially on this first day where all we were doing was pretty much standing around 3,500 feet underwater for an hour waiting to get a signal to head into the base.

“Never seen much of anything big, if that’s what you’re getting at.” replied Harris “Lots of schools of little fish that all look pretty much the same. I guess the most interesting thing I’ve seen on a dive was the octopus. This one time, I was patching up an oil rig, and this rig was old. Been up long enough that the struts are all grown over with seaweed, and little urchins and shit. So while I’m working, this little red octopus, maybe as big as your hand, swims out of the seaweed. It came over, checked me out. Little guy ended up hanging around, I guess he liked me.”

“Remember the shark?” Gao chimed in. And I did. The last time we’d worked together, this huge shark had swum around us for a while. Gao hadn’t seemed worried, and I’d never been scared of sharks, so I wasn’t scared of it. When we were in the box (the pressurized living quarters sat divers stay in), Gao had said something about knowing what it had been. “Yeah I remember. Didn’t you say you knew what that was?” “Sand tiger. They look big ‘n scary, but they’re so gentle the other name for them is grey nurses.”

Foster, who’d been mostly quiet until now, seized the moment to speak. “When you’ve been diving your whole life, you see all kinds of shit. Weird fish, old structures starting to get reclaimed by nature, nonsense like cars buried in the seabed. The one that sticks with me is the whale.” He stopped talking for a moment, bending down in his suit to try to pick up one of the starfish. “...So you saw a whale?” asked Harris. “I’m getting to it!” Foster snapped, dropping the starfish before he could bring it to his faceplate to examine. “Yes, I saw a whale. But not JUST a whale. It was… different. It was three years ago, fixing up a manifold under an oil rig. It was near the end of my shift, just a little while til I could go back to the box. I see this huge damn dark spot in the distance, coming closer. At first I figured it had to be a submarine or something, but then it got up close and damned if I wasn’t looking at some kinda whale. Must have been near fifty feet long, that deep gray color you get with whales and dolphins. Had a long face, even for a whale, shaped more like some kinda weirdass beak than a mouth. But some whales are just like that, I guess. But this whale wasn’t right. Y’know how they get like, barnacles ‘n shit on them? This one had, I swear to you, goddamn coral growing off it. Over most of its head, covering its damn eyes, sea fans streaming behind it as it swam. Swam right past me, past the rig, down and down until it was gone. I only saw it for a minute, but I will never in my life forget that.”

We were quiet for a little while after his story before Harris started up again. “Well, I don’t know about whales covered in coral, but that story does remind me. The doc told me earlier to tell you guys once we were down here. If you think you see some shit out in the dark water beyond the lights, don’t worry about it. How dark it is down here plays tricks with your eyes, and you might see things off in the distance that just aren’t there. If it helps, get one of the others to look too and tell you that there ain’t anything there.” “Dude what the hell!” Gao exclaimed “You couldn’t wait to spring that creepy shit on us til we were in the base? I wasn’t nervous before but now you’ve got me rethinking it.” “It was meant to cut it off at the pass before it happened” replied Harris. “The whale story made me remember and I don’t want of of y’all telling me I’ve got to come look at some damn whale your brain’s conjured up for you.” “You trying to say I didn’t see that whale?” snapped Foster “I know what I saw, even if it was three years ago.” Harris quickly responded “That’s not what I’m saying. I’m just saying that, down here, your eyes want to see movement where there isn’t any. It’s a function of how dark it is and that’s all. I’m sure you saw a whale before, but you probably won’t see a whale now.”

Foster calmed back down, and we talked amongst ourselves sporadically for the remaining time. I checked out the rock formation, and it turned out to have some other kind of weird coral or something growing at the base. It was like a network of pale, pinkish-orange ‘roots’, with deeper purple bulb or leaf like structures at the top. Probably a deep sea coral, or hell even that mystery seaweed they wanted us to collect. Regardless, the time came to head into the base. So we opened the airlock chamber door and climbed in. It was less cramped than I’d expected from previous airlocks, although truthfully that still meant there wasn’t much spare room while we were in the suits. I figured they made it roomy enough to change into and out of the suits while we were in the room. I did notice the ‘charging docks’ that the people at Triton had told us about, four thick cables that plugged into the suits to charge them when we weren’t using them.

The water slowly drained back out of the room, and we waited for the signal that it was depressurized and safe to remove our suits. That signal came after around thirty minutes, the red lights turning green and three sharp beeps coming from some unseen speaker. We started to get out of the suits, but Gao stayed put. Then I remembered from our previous job that Gao didn’t like changing around other people. I guess he thought if we saw the surgical scars or whatever, we’d think he was less of a man somehow? Didn’t matter to me what the guy had gone through or what he’d been born as, but I respected his desire for privacy. I turned to Harris and Foster “Hey guys, let’s check out the living quarters, see what these nerds left us for entertainment.” Foster gestured at Gao “What’s the matter kid, you bashful?” Gao shook his head and I guess said something into the suit’s comms system, but the rest of us were already out of our suits so we couldn’t hear him. Instead, I nudged Foster towards the door into the base and said “Listen, he’ll change on his own, let’s just go see the base. I don’t know about you but I’m starving, let’s get some damn food.” This was enough for Foster, it seemed, as he and Harris went through the door. I followed, and we started figuring out the place’s layout. We’d been briefed on it, but that’s not the same as getting a feel for it in person.

There were two ‘crew modules’, each with sleeping spaces for two people (one of them had an extra ‘bunk’ that could fold out for a possible fifth person). There was a ‘bathroom’ module with two bathroom type rooms, and a module we’d been told would later house laboratory equipment for on-site experiments but that while we were down here would serve as a sort of common area/entertainment room for us. The ‘common area’ has a built in ‘table’ on one wall, with a round, porthole-like window of immensely thick reinforced glass at either end. The windows were pretty small, about the size of my head. The room was stocked with simple food, most of it freeze dried or ‘just add water’, with a hot plate for boiling. We broke out the cup noodles, and once the water was hot and the food was ready, we sat at the built in table and ate.

Through a mouthful of noodles, Harris asked “So you worked with Gao before, right? What’s wrong with him?” I shook my head. “Nothing’s wrong with him. He’s just modest. Leave the kid alone, he’s a hard worker.” Harris shrugged “If you say so. No skin off my back. Just seems weird to be embarrassed about changing around your team.” Foster butted in “Ah, who gives a shit. Now that I’ve got some food in me I really don’t care anymore, he’s young give him a break. If he wants to be modest, I say let ‘em, long as he doesn’t expect me to wait on eating for him to get that suit off.”

Foster changed the subject to everyone’s favorite foods, and five minutes later Gao walked in and made his own noodles. We made small talk for a while, and decided to look through the ‘entertainment’ supplies the Triton folks said they’d left us. It turned out to be comprised of two decks of playing cards, a few board games (for whatever reason), a tablet which turned out to have a couple games and movies loaded onto it, and a CD player/radio with a collection of audiobooks. Honestly, it was better than a lot of the boxes I’d been in. Harris said he was tired, so he went off to the ‘crew quarters’ to sleep for a while, Gao went for the tablet, and I played cards with Foster for a while. How many people can say they’ve played cards at the bottom of the ocean, with three thousand feet of water between you and the surface?

Anyway, the rest of the day passed uneventfully. We were contacted by the Dr.Callas, who explained some basic things about the base, like the external tethers for the suits, and told us how the next day’s supply delivery would work. She also told us where to find the sample containers, since that was still part of our job down here. Harris got up from napping eventually, we talked amongst ourselves, ate dinner. Eventually we all turned in for the night, the general consensus being we should be as well-rested as possible for the days ahead. Foster and Harris took one of the ‘crew quarters’, so it was me and Gao in the other one. We had a brief chat about how weird it was to be going to sleep in the deep sea, but then I fell asleep.

POP Base, it turned out, had a built in wake-up alarm that went off at 9 AM. It was five loud pings, preceded and followed by a recorded computer voice saying “It is now 0900 hours. It is now 0900 hours”. Normally, I’d have woken up on my own before that (and besides most jobs I’ve been on have you wake up much earlier) but I guess with the total lack of natural light my body didn’t have dawn to rely on. We ate a breakfast of what was basically astronaut food, and received instructions from Dr. Callas to hang tight until the drone arrived, then get in the suits for the second day of field tests. The way POP Base was set up, the front portion of the airlock could be opened remotely while keeping the rest of the base sealed, and that was how the drone ‘let itself in’. The supposedly crucial supplies we’d had to wait for consisted mostly of extra gear to collect the samples, pretty much just fancy shovels and clippers.

Me and Harris gathered up the sample containers while Foster had what must’ve been his third instant coffee, and Gao went to check on the suits to make sure they’d charged properly. I figured he probably wanted a reason to get changed before the others, so they wouldn’t give him a hard time like they did yesterday. So once the rest of us caught up and got our suits on too, we were ready for our second day in this alien place. We had to take the drone out with us, since that was the most convenient way to let it out of the base. Just whirred up towards the surface, slipping out of sight in moments. Foster’s voice buzzed over the comms system:

“Alright team, so y’all remember what the doc said. On the east side of POP Base we’ll find the suit tethers. One of us’ll have to stay back to man the controls, and I think you youngsters might let this old hand take the easy job today. Any issues with that?” Gao was quick to respond. “You can take it, staying back isn’t my style. I dunno about the rest of you, but I came to explore.” I put in a quick word of agreement. “Same here. I’m all about this going boldly shit.” Harris was quiet for a moment before assenting as well. “Fine. Might want to switch off next time, though.”

That settled that, so we made our way to the tethers in the half-swimming half-walking motion we’d learned to use in these suits. The tethers were basically two-thousand foot long cables that could be winched back into the base if necessary. Dr.Callas had explained that it was to prevent us getting disoriented in the darkness of the deep ocean, so all we would have to do to return to base was have a teammate push the button on the wall next to each tether. Another reason to be thankful for the comms system in the suits. Those comms systems continued to be enormously helpful in keeping us calm while navigating this watery netherworld.

As we took our first steps into the thick darkness of the deep ocean, it became quickly apparent that the lights on our suits weren’t quite as strong as the lights on the base. We could see maybe fifteen feet in the night-dark sea around us. We’d been told that the seaweed we were looking to take samples of was that same orange, rootlike plant I had seen growing from under the rock near POP Base. That being said, Dr.Callas had said we needed to find one that wasn’t partly under a rock, as the root system was something Triton wanted. She assured us their submarines had seen freestanding ones around the oceanic plateau, and that we should be able to find them with ease. It was slow going. Between how bulky the suits were and the odd movement we had to employ, we weren’t exactly racing along the ocean floor. We kept a fairly tight grouping. For all our enthusiasm to explore somewhere no human ever had, I don’t think any of us wanted to be alone in the abyss.

We noticed pretty soon that there was more life down here than we’d initially thought, beyond the little sea stars and anemones around the base. As slow as we were going, it was pretty much impossible not to look around and notice the weird little animals we were existing with. Absolutely teeny shrimp, swimming backwards through the water. Flattened, silvery fish barely as long as my finger. I even saw what I swear must have been some kind of tiny little anglerfish, barely eight inches long. But after a while, we found it. The plant, or rather two plants, about ten feet apart. They were more orderly-looking, somehow, than the plant growing out from under that boulder. But other than that, they were much the same as it. Group of orangeish roots or branches or whatever, purple ‘leaves’ at the top. The only major difference between the two we’d just found was that one was pretty small, like the one growing under the boulder (maybe as tall as a large bottle of coke), whereas the second one was nearly to chest-height. We decided to dig up the small one, since it would fit better in the sample container in one piece.

The digging was slow as well, since we’d been instructed to be careful. The actual roots of this weird seaweed went down into the silty sand for a little over a foot. So we gently, carefully dug up as much of the roots as we could with it and put it in the sample container. That being said, the cloud of silt we kicked up while we dug damn near blinded us for five solid minutes after, but hell if that didn’t feel like an eternity. So we got on the comms, told Foster to start up the winch, and with that begin our trudging progress back.

Inch by inch, we were pulled back towards the base. After a while, Gao came on over the comms: “Hey, look at this little dude!” I looked in his direction, and to where he was pointing. There was a blobby little purple octopus, with these short little arms, just lazily floating its way across the bottom. It must have been one of those ‘flapjack octopi’ because the little sucker was seriously disney-cute. I swear I even heard Harris stifle an ‘aww’ over the comms. But then I noticed something else. At the very far edge of our light, there was this bizarre ‘shimmer’ over the sand. A long, roughly linear patch of water which for that split second looked like a bad special effect, an impossible heat haze at the bottom of the ocean. “Hey, the fuck. Did anyone else see that?” To my surprise, Harris answered first. “Out of the corner of my eye, yeah. It’s a current. Depths like this, sometimes the current becomes visible over the ocean floor. Disturbed sediment lets you see it.” I didn’t even know what to say about that. My lack of a response must have irked him, because he quickly added: “Been working for the eggheads for a while. You pick stuff up.”

We got back to POP Base not long after, sample in tow. Dr. Callas actually came on over the communication system not ten minutes later to tell us we’d been in the water ninety minutes so would we kindly get back in the base. We went through the same process as the day before, get in the airlock, wait for the signal, get out of the suits. Today the other two didn’t give Gao any grief about not changing around them, so that was a step in the right direction. We stowed the sample in a corner of the common area and went about unwinding. Later in the day (or night, we didn’t exactly have a sun to go by) we even dug through the board games they’d left us. We ended up playing a round of something called ‘pandemic’, where the players work together to stop a plague. Harris joked that we’d tricked ourselves into doing a team-building exercise to escape boredom, but honestly we really were starting to feel like more of a team. The next morning, just after the base’s wake-up call, we got the day’s instructions from Dr.Callas. They wanted us to get two more samples today, as intact as we could get them. When Gao asked about what size plants she wanted, she had to think about it for a minute before elaborating: “I see that you’ve noticed the seaweed in various stages of growth. I suppose you haven’t encountered the largest variety yet, but two of the samples should be complete specimens of the plant whilst it remains small. If you could acquire a sample from both the roots and the bulbs of one of the larger ones, that would be excellent. However, I must warn you: the largest ones we’ve seen down there are around the size of trees. Please refrain from potentially damaging your suits going after those, and stick to the ones your size or smaller.” Foster raised an eyebrow (not that the doc could see it) and asked: “Seriously? Tree sized seaweed? Well shit, that’s pretty damn big. What do you mean it could potentially damage our suits though?” Dr.Callas responded “The seaweed, after reaching a certain size, detaches from the ocean floor. From what little we’ve managed to track this process, we believe it allows the currents to carry it from the Pontus Oceanic Plateau into the abyssopelagic zone which the plateau rises from. We still don’t know why it does this. And to answer your question fully, it could damage your suits because the roots come up with the rest of the plant. They tend to dangle beneath it and could entangle your suits, potentially damaging valuable sensors and requiring a teammate to extricate you. Please refrain from doing this.”

Everyone was quiet for a moment. I don’t know about the others, but I was just trying to get a mental image of what the doc had just described. A huge mass of seaweed, just silently floating along in the midnight zone. Gao spoke up before anyone else: “Why’s it float down into the abyss though? If it’s some kind of seed-spreading, cycle of life sorta thing, wouldn’t it make more sense for it to float up?” Dr.Callas was quick to reply: “If we knew that we wouldn’t need so many samples, now would we? Just don’t go after the floating ones, and everything will go smoothly.”

And that was about it for our day’s instructions. Dr.Callas told us that based on past submarine exploration, we would probably find decent specimens of the seaweed to collect if we set out towards the south from POP Base. We’d gone roughly northwest yesterday, so it was good to have a tip about where we might find the stuff. Harris and Foster had a quick chat and agreed that Foster would go out with me and Gao today, since he’d had the easy job yesterday. We had a quick breakfast, and Foster downed two instant coffees about as fast as I’ve ever seen a man drink anything. I was just feeling excited to get out there and explore again. The crushing depths may have been a little spooky, but what the doc told us had even further intensified my feelings of being like an astronaut on an alien planet. Floating seaweed trees, are you kidding me?! It felt like something truly not of this earth, and I was one of the brave and lucky few who could see it first hand. When we finished eating, we did essentially the same as we had yesterday. Gao suited up first, while the rest of us gathered up the sample containers and tools. Once we were all in the suits, we opened the airlock and stepped out into the deep.

For the third time, we stood thirty-five hundred feet below the ocean, in the circle of light cast by the research base. Harris helped us all attach the tethers, and wished us luck in finding more of the seaweed. He joked that we better find it before the big floating sort found us, and I told him that if one of us got tangled up he’d better winch us back to the base seaweed-tree and all. And with that, we set forth into the inky darkness of the ocean. The sandy silt rose in little puffs beneath us as we moved, and today once or twice I caught a glimpse of small eel-like creatures burrowing beneath the sand we’d disturbed. Before anything else of note, we came across a few more huge, blocky boulders like the one near POP Base. As we maneuvered our way around them, I noticed the latticed metallic-looking formations visible inside large cracks in the boulders. They reminded me of something, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, so I asked the others. “Hey, guys. Look in the cracked part of this rock, you ever seen that before?” They came over and took a look. Foster quipped “Looks like someone’s been sticking little metal mazes in the rocks to fuck with us. Maybe this job’s an elaborate prank.” Gao was more helpful “I actually have seen that before. I swear to god it looks like bismuth crystals, but like that’s not supposed to just occur out in nature. It’s normally lab grown, that doesn’t usually just happen.” Foster laughed over the comms “ Well people don’t uuusually just trudge around in the deep goddamn sea but shit, here we are. Let’s keep moving, we’ve got weed to find!”

So we pressed on. A while later, we stumbled onto what had to be the most populous place we’d found so far. Fan corals and sponges rose from the seafloor like a knee-high forest, and pale little fish swam sluggishly between them. A few of those little eel-things I’d noticed earlier were sticking out of the sand near the edge of our light, and while I looked on one of them caught a passing shrimp in its slender jaws. But the real prize lay just a little further. Once we’d moved a little ways into this garden of deep sea corals, the seaweed came into view. None were quite so large as the doc had mentioned, but there were four or five little ones and one that was probably around six feet tall. One of the small ones was in a little ‘clearing’ in the corals, so we went to that one first. But as we moved towards it, I noticed it again. That heat-haze shimmer, at the edge of our light. I called out over the comms. “Hey Gao, you see it this time?” He affirmed that yes, he had. Just like last time, it was gone as quickly as it showed up. But this time I swear there were several distinct ‘lines’, and I was really at a loss for how a current could look like that. I wasn’t a scientist though, so I figured the explanation we got yesterday was as accurate as any. Foster chimed in “You mean those weird ‘streams’ or whatever? Yeah, Harris filled me in on that shit. Y’know, Moreno, back by those rocks there was a big ‘ol current just behind ya, if it was any closer I’d’ve said something. Wouldn’t want to get swept up.”

The thought of getting caught in a deep-sea current sent a chill up my spine, but I remembered the tethers. I felt a bit better when I considered that I was basically tied to a building which could pull me back in if I got swept away. We got to work digging up the plant. It went a little faster than the day before, but it still kicked up a hell of a dust cloud. With the first sample safely in a container, the dust cloud began to settle. It was almost gone when Foster barked “Hey, eyes left, the hell is that?” True to his word, there was movement in the gloom to our left. It resolved itself rapidly into a dark, dog-sized fish that I sure didn’t recognize. Probably some kind of shark, but down here I wasn’t gonna make assumptions. It had long, almost wing-like fins, and a weirdly pointy snout. Foster came back on the comms “Sorry team. Saw something moving, didn’t wanna get caught off guard if it was a pissed off swordfish or something. Happened to a buddy of mine, and I don’t wanna know what happens if these suits get punctured this deep.” As I responded with “Do you really know a guy who got stabbed by a swordfish?” the fish, whatever it was, glided past us. It circled around us, revealing a skinny tail and two long, trailing rear fins. It seemed to satisfy whatever curiosity it had about us pretty quickly, gliding back out into the murky darkness and out of sight. We quickly got to work collecting our sample from the larger plant.

As we cut some bulbs from the person-sized seaweed tree, I mused that the weird fish we’d just run into was the largest animal we’d seen down here. Foster started to say something about not jinxing it, but Gao cut him off. “Actually, in this kind of biome, most of the animals are really small. There’s not exactly a lot of food, so bigger isn’t really better here. My guess would be that that chimaera we saw is one of the biggest things down here.” I had to ask “Chimera? Didn’t look like it had a lion’s head, or a snake for a tail.” I could almost hear him rolling his eyes at me. “Not that kind of chimera. A chimaera is a kind of shark, lives in the deep sea. And that thing we just saw is almost definitely a chimaera.” Foster exclaimed “Well hell kid, are you a shark scientist now?” Gao responded that no, he’d just taken marine biology courses in school and remembered some things. We started back in on the seaweed, moving to the roots. We dug up what we could and cut off a sample, before getting on the comms and telling Harris to start the winch. I tried to make sure I didn’t step on or break any of the coral while we were getting pulled back, and from the looks of it my teammates did the same.

The way back was mostly uneventful. There were no weird currents, no cute little octopi. We did see a pair of jellyfish, which were so translucent we almost missed them. They had little luminescent patches at the bottom of their ‘heads’, which is how we ended up spotting them. But that was really the only thing of note we spotted on the way back. Back at the base, Harris helped us untether ourselves and asked if we’d seen the floating seaweed trees that Dr.Callas told us about. As Foster was explaining that the biggest one we’d seen was like six feet tall, the doc herself came on over the comms and told us our ninety minutes were done. So we headed over to the airlock door, and got ready to go back in the base, samples in tow. But once the door was opened, before we’d stepped inside, Gao said in a low, anxious voice “Hey. Hey everyone stop, please look at this. I need to know I’m not seeing things.” So we looked. Beyond the edge of the light, in the gloom that then gave way to midnight darkness, was a massive, indistinct shape. It wasn’t close enough to the lit area for anything to really be visible but its size, but whatever it was, it was enormous. POP Base’s lights went out about thirty feet in every direction, including up. The shadow in the water seemed to stretch from nearly the sea floor to the very top of our light. It drifted lazily, beyond the edge of what we knew, slowly floating further and further away into the aphotic black of the deep.

Harris was the first to speak, after what felt like twenty or thirty minutes but was likely only as many seconds. “Speak of the devil. The damn seaweed trees.” That seemed to jolt us back into the realm of reason, and we hurried into the airlock. While the water was being expelled and we were still suited up, Foster asked over the comms “You sure that was seaweed? I know she said tree sized, but damn. That shit felt like a bad omen.” Harris responded quickly “Trees get big. I don’t think a scientist would call something tree-sized if they meant it was only ten feet tall. What the hell else would be floating along on the current down here? Especially what the hell else with a root system?” Foster retorted “What do you mean ‘what the hell else with a root system’? You see roots just now? Cause all I saw was a huge goddamn shadow in the water.” Harris held up his hands in appeasement “Easy. I got a tiny glimpse, looked like the bottom was roots. Just like what we’ve been digging up, just like what we were explicitly told gets real big and floats around down here. Don’t conjure up boogeymen under the sea, be rational about this.”

Foster was silent for the rest of our time in the airlock, but just the same he left with me and Harris when it was time so Gao could have his privacy. In an inversion of our first day here, Foster went off alone saying he needed to lie down and Harris stuck around in the common area. I played cards with him and Gao, and then we listened to some cheesy audiobook about kings and knights and whatever. I noticed that Gao kept looking out the little windows, though. Like he was seeing if that enormous shape had come back. Seaweed-tree or not, Foster was right. It looked like some omen of death out of a medieval sailor’s story. I still wanted to explore, to experience this alien landscape firsthand, but if I saw another one of those seaweed-trees I didn’t want to see it at that distance. Thinking about it, I suppose that’s what made it ominous. Up close, I’m sure it just looked like a big plant. But outside the well-lit area we could see, it was just a huge shadow.

Later, just before we went to the bunks to get some sleep, I overheard the last part of a conversation between Foster and Harris. I was heading to the crew module me and Gao were in, having just come from the bathroom, when I heard their low voices around a corner. Foster was mid-sentence when I started listening. “-damn seaweed! You really believe that shit? Come on man, these science types never tell us folks what they’re really after.” Harris sounded less frustrated than Foster, but no less urgent. “You’re being overly paranoid. I would’ve thought you’d know better on a job. If you didn’t trust the researchers, you shouldn’t have taken this assignment.” Foster retorted “ You always assume the people who have to write your paychecks have your back? Be real, these people always have a hidden motive. Whether they hide what they’re after because it’ll make whoever finds it rich as shit, or whether they hide it because any sane person’d be scared shitless of it. You’re really tellin’ me you don’t think this is the least bit sketchy?” Harris responded “I know we’re deeper than anyone’s ever dived, but you’re letting that get to you. And you of all people, Mr.I’ve-been-on-sooo-many-dives should know better than that. Tomorrow’s our last full day down here before the sub picks us up, try to keep yourself together.” “Fuck that” Foster snapped “you’re so keen on trusting that the geeks have your best interest at heart, you go out tomorrow. I’m staying by the base with the damn winch.” "Fine. I’ll do just that. You can stay cowering by the base, scared of some seaweed. You were right back at the lab, when you said you were too old for this.”

I heard footsteps walking away, probably also towards the crew modules. I waited thirty, forty seconds to be polite, and then made my own way towards them. Foster was still standing in the hall, glaring towards the door to the common area. I didn’t say anything, but he gave me a cursory nod and I nodded back. No sense making unnecessary enemies. When Gao and I were in our bunks, before either of us nodded off, I wanted his take on our situation. Since he was on the upper bunk and I was on the lower, I thought he’d probably get that it was directed at him if I spoke. “So, that chimaera thing was a shark huh?” He was quiet for a moment, before saying “Yeah, makes two for two. Both dives we’ve worked on together, we’ve run into sharks.” I chuckled “Guess they’ll have to start calling us the shark boys, huh?” He snorted, not saying anything further. I pressed on. “So about that seaweed-tree thing. Seems like it’s got Foster sort of spooked.” Gao thought about it for a moment, and said “I get it. When Dr.Callas mentioned getting tangled in the roots, and damaging the suits. That did sound pretty bad. But I’ve been thinking about it, and it’s honestly sort of neat. Floating trees underwater, now that’s something no one else’s ever seen.” He’d been right there with me on the exploration angle. Harris seemed mostly interested in the money, and I couldn’t quite pin down Foster’s reason for taking the mission, but Gao was like me. He took it for the sheer curious joy of getting to explore the closest thing to an alien planet most anyone was ever gonna see. So I responded “Looks like we were more spot-on about how alien this place was than we knew. I’m not gonna shy away from seeing more of it, but hell, after seeing the size of that thing… well, getting tangled up sounds like a bad time.” “It’s a big plant” he countered “but it’s still just a plant. The sample collection shovels have cut through the roots of all the ones we’ve had to dig up, don’t see why they wouldn’t cut through the roots of the big ones.” The bunk creaked as he made some adjustment, got comfortable, and finally said “Now I intend on getting some sleep, and I think you should probably do the same. Don’t wanna be tired when we suit up.” So shortly thereafter, I went to sleep as well.

Once again, POP Base’s wake up call was what woke us. Since it was a resupply day, we’d have to wait until after noon to suit up. We ate breakfast, and Foster was quieter than usual. Still throwing back cup after cup of that instant coffee though. Harris and Gao started chatting, and Gao asked some questions about the base. He seemed to feel like since Harris had been working with Triton for a while, he might know some stuff we didn’t. Nothing really serious for the most part, just little curious things. Harris didn’t know a whole lot more than the rest of us, but it turned out he did know one interesting thing. When Gao asked “So did they ever tell you how this base stays habitable? Like, there’s gotta be some trick to the air supply. No way it just holds so much air that it can sustain four people for almost a week, with the airlock used every single day.” Rather than a taciturn ‘dunno’ or ‘good question’, Harris gave Gao a genial smile like he’d been waiting for someone to ask him that, and said “Now this one, they did tell me. First off, POP Base has a massive compressed air storage system. Sits under everything else, in that big boxy-looking bit you can see when we’re outside. They told me it holds about seventy hours of air given a crew our size. Second, when the base gets resupplied, they actually send two drones down. There’s another, bigger drone that never comes in, just hooks up to the air tanks and fills ‘em back up. They’re real proud of their compressors, far as they told me it’s a big part of how this base and the suits are possible.” Huh. The more you know, I guess. The two of them talked for a little while longer, and we waited for either the drone to arrive or Dr.Callas to give us our instructions for the day.

Eventually, the doc came over the base’s speakers. She told us that the drone would have a monitoring device which they wanted us to go put in the sand a ways off from POP Base. Foster asked why they couldn’t just use a drone or a submarine for that, and Dr.Callas responded that it was because they had four guys who they were paying to test their cutting-edge dive suits and it seemed like an efficient use of their time. Foster grumbled, but didn’t question it any further. So we waited around for the drone, and when it let itself in we went to go collect it. Sure enough, in addition to more freeze-dried food and bottled water, it had what looked like a metal stake with wires and little blinking lights on it. We put away the food and water and went through our usual routine, Gao slipping away early to change into his suit before the rest of us. Once we were all suited up, carrying the drone and the monitoring device, we opened the airlock.

After the airlock filled with water, we stepped out into the deep. When we were clear of the base, Gao let the drone go and it made its way back to the research vessel at the surface. Foster helped us put on our tethers, and we set off to go place the sensor thing. Callas had said that we could stick it around where we’d gotten our samples yesterday, so that was the direction we headed in. Shortly after leaving the circle of light around POP Base, Gao came on over the comms. “So uhh… Did any of you guys catch what exactly this thingy’s supposed to be monitoring?” I hadn’t. Harris, however, said “Ain’t totally sure, but I know that back in the lab they wanted to study the currents down here. Probably something to do with that.” Gao was still curious, though. “I’m not sure that’s the kind of sensor you use for currents. I’m not pretending I’m an expert, but I swear that doesn’t look like any of the devices we learned about in my oceanography class.” Harris responded “Does any of the stuff Triton’s been having us use look exactly regular? I mean, look at the suits. They don’t exactly look like norma- huh?” His statement cut off abruptly, and it took me a second to see what had happened. But to my horror, I saw a pale, elongated tendril hanging down from the gloom, wrapped around Harris’ leg. For just one moment, I thought I knew what was happening. It must have been the roots of a giant seaweed-tree.

Then the ocean to either side of him shimmered, the same long, oddly linear ‘shimmers’ that Harris had told us was just the current on that first expedition. Only this time, rather than vanishing, the ‘shimmers’ resolved themselves into two more tendrils, which wrapped around his arm and his stomach. He screamed over the comms, and I shouted to Foster to pull in the winches, but before anything else could happen Harris’ body was yanked upwards with terrifying speed. Even as the winches started to pull us back, I got a glimpse of what had snagged him in the lights of his suit as he was pulled up. Those long, forearm-thick tendrils extended a good thirty feet through the gloom, and he was caught in the front three of what had to be at least eight, maybe ten. As his lights illuminated the ‘top’ of these tentacles, I got the impression of something like a pale, diaphanous squid. Only squid don’t have elbows. I caught an awful glimpse of its blank white eyes, and then Harris’ lights died. Gao was yelling into the comms, Foster was yelling into the comms, but Harris had gone totally silent. The creature’s hanging limbs were visible for another few moments, as it drifted silently away from us, and as it hit the edge of our light it shimmered. Then it was gone.

Gao was shouting the whole way back, Foster trying desperately to figure out what had happened, but I couldn’t bring myself to speak. All I could focus on was the pit of dread inside me having just seen my teammate pulled into the stygian gloom by an otherworldly thing. When we were pulled back into the base’s light, a final terrible detail became clear. The last tether, Harris’ tether, was unraveled at the end. No hook, no person tied to it, just a metal cable simply unraveled like a piece of cheap cord. When Gao managed to explain enough to Foster to get it across, Foster said “Fuck this, we’re going back in the base. I’m not sticking around while some shitty knockoff kraken eats me and I’m not letting you two do that either.” We didn’t need much convincing. We hustled back into the base, sensor still in hand, and let the airlock drain and depressurize. Before the all-clear light turned green, Dr.Callas came through the comms. “Someone wanna tell me what the hell’s going on down there?!” I took it on myself to answer. “Ma’am, it’s Harris… Some sort of creature attacked him, he’s gone. Even ripped through the tether. We’re back safe inside the base.” She was quiet for a moment, before simply saying “Elaborate.” Me and Gao told her, about the weird shimmers we’d been seeing, and the big squid thing we saw pull Harris up. Foster even backed us up about the shimmers. Unfortunately, in the end she said “You’re all mistaken.” Foster started to snarl something at her, but she cut him off and continued. “It’s clear that Harris became snagged in some of the seaweed we warned you about. While you were told to avoid the large, floating masses of it, it appears that Harris was likely caught in an upswell current and brought into the root system. He became entangled, and an undetected flaw in his tether caused the hook to snap off.” I was stunned into silence. From the lack of his normal bluster, I guessed Foster was too. But not Gao. He wasn’t having it. He yelled “It wasn’t fucking seaweed! We know what we saw, you aren’t even down here! Harris is probably dead because you didn’t warn us abou-” “-If Harris is dead, that’s a tragedy.” She interjected. “However, you’re clearly in shock and don’t know what you saw. We’ll call off the rest of the suit trial, but you’re still not getting the sub to the surface til tomorrow. If we won’t have the full suit field test then goddammit we’ll still have the full human habitability test. Now do whatever you have to do to calm down. Get some sleep, or something.”

She left the communications channel as the all-clear light turned green. Foster damn near flung the suit off of himself, and stalked off into the base before I was out of mine. I didn’t forget to leave before Gao was out of his suit though. Common courtesy still held. Foster was pacing angrily in the common area, and I just sat down. I still couldn’t believe what had happened. What in the hell was that thing? After a few minutes, Gao joined us. Foster told us both, with tears in his eyes, to never trust the bosses if they tell you something’s safe. He said “If you think it looks dangerous, it probably fucking is. They don’t give a good goddamn about us and they never will. Don’t you ever forget that.”

Time passed at the bottom of the sea. For most of the day, we spoke in bursts, keeping to whatever activity could distract us. Nothing too involved, no one was in the mood to play games. Gao watched a couple movies on the tablet, I put on an audiobook which eventually Foster sat with me and listened to. But we jumped at noises. Spooked at shadows. Gao wouldn’t look out the little common area windows. We were enveloped by a miasma of dread, and even when we tried to sleep there was no escaping it. Foster left for bed first, and when I went off to the crew quarters second I could hear quiet sobbing from the room he occupied. I lay in the tiny, cramped ‘bed’ just wondering if there was anything I could have done. Eventually, my thoughts took a dark and paranoid turn. Triton had told us there were floating ‘seaweed-trees’ of a massive size down here, but in the ground we’d never seen them much bigger than a person. Had they just lied? Lied, to cover up the existence of whatever the hell had attacked Harris? I lay there, consumed by these thoughts even after Gao came in and climbed wordlessly onto the top bunk. During that night, I swear I hear something brushing against the outside of the base. But that had to just be in my mind, didn’t it? God knows how many inches of solid metal, there was no way you’d hear something brushing against it. But nevertheless, I heard it.

I must have drifted off to sleep eventually, because the base’s wake up call pulled me out of my slumber. Like the other days, I stumbled towards the common area, and had breakfast with the rest of the team. But today, there were only three of us. Gao looked like he’d barely slept, and Foster’s eyes were rimmed with red. I decided that I didn’t notice either, and we ate a mostly silent meal. At around noon, the doc came over the base’s speakers to let us know that the sub would arrive soon and we needed to suit up. So for the last time, and with some apprehension, we stepped into the suits. Foster came onto the comms and addressed the doctor, saying that we didn’t plan on opening the airlock until we had confirmation the sub was here. She allowed that, and so eventually we got the go-ahead, and opened the airlock. Dark, cold water rushed in, and we went out from the base. Luckily, the sub was waiting for us, and we hurried from one airlock into another, and made it safely inside. There was the same procedure as the base’s airlock, and when the light turned green we took off those suits with not a small amount of relief.

We barely spoke in that submarine, or up on the research vessel. Dr.Callas said she was sorry that our team had an accident, and thanked us for help in Triton’s research. No one was keen to speak much to her. When we were back on land, Foster gave Gao and I a firm handshake, and told us to stay safe. He said he was officially retiring from taking diving jobs. We all said our goodbyes, and went our separate ways.

But that wasn’t the end of it. A week or two after the checks from that job cleared, Gao actually contacted me. He told me that he and Foster had done a little digging, and that I needed to see what they’d found out. He sent me some stuff, half of which I didn’t understand, but the general gist of which was that there was no such company as ‘Triton Labs’. That building we’d been hired and done our training in belonged to a totally unrelated company, and the only Triton Labs the two of them could find was some german water quality testing company. But neither Gao nor Foster had any idea what that might mean, or what exactly the now-mysterious company we’d been working for would even get out of lying to us. That brings us to last night. A serious fog had rolled in yesterday, although that isn’t particularly unusual in my neck of the woods. Port towns on the coast at this time of year just get foggy sometimes.

So here it was, a foggy night, and at one in the morning there was a knock on my door. I didn’t answer, because who the hell would. And then there was another. Just the loud thud of someone slapping their hand against the wood of the door. Now one of the nice things about my house is there’s a side window you can see the street from, including just outside the front door. So I looked outside and what I saw damn near dropped me to my knees then and there. The top half of his diving suit was gone. Not torn off, just removed, leaving a smooth edge where it would have connected to the bottom half. The wetsuit he wore beneath was frayed, still waterlogged. And his face. Oh god, his face. His skin was translucent. Not the blue of a drowned person, not anything natural, but slick and transparent like a jellyfish. His skull, his veins, everything was visible beneath. His head lolled from side to side as he moved, never looking all the way up. Worse still, however, was behind him. Those thick, pale tentacles were stuck into his back, and his shoulders. And there was the creature, floating above him like hell’s own balloon. The fog and the dark still obscured much of its limbs, but a streetlight lit up the thing’s ‘body’. It was a bit bigger than a person, maybe seven or eight feet long, and it had huge blank eyes. Its body was at once bloated and diaphanous, with gossamer ‘fins’ flowing from a bulbous center. Ten long arms dragged beneath it under ‘elbows’ held at stiff 90 degree angles. As I watched, the ‘arms’ it had stuck in Harris jerked and he pulled his own arm back and knocked once more. It moved him like a marionette, and to my growing horror I realized his feet were barely touching the ground. After what must have been around twenty knocks, the arms pulled him back, slowly, and the whole creature shimmered like a heat haze. This left Harris, seemingly gliding backwards on his tiptoes, body limp and arms at his sides, fading out of view into the fog. Now I’m sitting in my living room, looking out the window at another foggy evening. It’s around two in the morning, and there’s someone moving really oddly down the street, like their feet are barely touching the ground. I just saw something shimmer above them.