A Little Bit of Blue in the Black

Submitted into Contest #58 in response to: Write a story where the power goes out on a spaceship or submarine.... view prompt

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Science Fiction Drama

Some people think the depths are quiet, peaceful. Serene even. Those people are wrong.

There is no quiet here. Even without the hum of generators and the constant blares of alarms. Under the crushing pressure of fifteen hundred meters of water, the hull itself creaks and moans. Two-inch-thick steel contorts and twists in agony. A soda can straining to stand against a malicious boot.

No quiet, only darkness. And despair.

We’ve been stuck for the past twelve hours. Something hit us, some sort of electromagnetic surge. We still don’t know what it was. Probably never will. It fried a lot of our equipment, burst most of the batteries, and caused the generators to spin out of control until they broke themselves apart.

We were descending at the time. Without power, we couldn’t feed air into the buoyancy tanks, so once we started going down, we couldn’t stop. The little air left in the tanks compressed under the pressure, as did the hull of the Triton itself, so the deeper we reached, the faster we sunk. It still took ten minutes to reach fifteen hundred meters from our original depth of just two hundred.

Now we’re grounded on a ridge. Fifteen hundred is close to the sub’s maximal depth. If we had gone into the trench ahead of us, the hull would have breached, and we would all have drowned in minutes. If the pressure wouldn’t have caved our skulls in first, that is.

The rest of the crew believe this near-miss makes us fortunate. I think the opposite. At least that death would have been quick. Instead we are doomed to die slowly of hunger, or thirst, or even oxygen deprivation. Then again, a current might toss us into the abyss before we have to worry about those.

*

I left my room. Couldn’t sleep. Every time I came close, the walls squealed and groaned and woke me up. Instead, I walk the pathways of the sub and try to clear my head. The hall is dimly lit, drawing from the few batteries that happened to have been disconnected during the surge. The captain allowed the chief to use up to ten percent of the charge for lighting. She thinks it might help morale. The rest is to be conserved for electrolysis or desalination, in case we run out of oxygen or drinking water.

I walk down the starboard main hall, what we call Strawberry Lane. That’s where us technicians live. Port main, the scientists’ side, is called Du Pont Street. The Lane is usually full of traffic, day shift or night shift, but now it’s deserted. I can see all the way from one end, the bridge, all the way to the other, Engine Room Right. The engine room door is a crumpled mess. It was blown away when the generators broke down. Blood is still smeared on the wall where Jean-Pierre died. I shiver. My job was supposed to be the dangerous one, not his.

I turn my back and go to the bridge. The hemispheric space is enormous; the ceiling bulges upwards to a height of two stories. It is mostly empty even on a normal day, nothing but a few computer stations, now abandoned. It took some time getting used to. In my previous subs, you couldn’t stand shoulder to shoulder with anyone, even in the widest areas. The bow of the Triton surprised me too when I came on board; it is composed of reinforced glass over a grid of steel beams, offering a magnificent view of the outside. Now, of course, there is nothing to see. The window is all black.

The captain is standing in front of the window, hands clasped behind her back. Some of us call her Queen of the Deep. She owns the Triton, commands it, helms it sometimes, and is the lead scientist on one of the sub’s main research projects: investigating the colossal squid.

She hears me approaching and turns around. “Ade, how are you?” she asks. I can’t make out her features in the dim red light.

“Good evening, ma’am,” I say and walk up to her. “I’m fine, thank you. How are you?”

She clenches her jaw when I say “ma’am,” but doesn’t call me out on it as she usually does. Instead, she says softly, “are you?”

I want to say yes but I choke. I feel my heart rushing and my eyes getting moist, but I kill it quickly. I close my eyes, focus, take two deep breaths and calm down. When my eyes open, I see the captain looking at me worriedly. “I take it you aren’t,” she says.

“I am,” I say, “I am. Just concerned, naturally.”

“Come on, I know that calming trick you do. You’re not in the navy anymore, Ade, you don’t have to be so stoic. You can talk to me.”

“Ma’am-“

“Evelyne.”

I’d often wondered which of us will give up first in this battle. Now I don’t think we have time for a natural resolution. “Evelyne,” I say, “I feel powerless. I’m used to being the first one in the water, not to stop until the problem is fixed. But none of my equipment can work this deep, and out of the water I’m useless.” As the exterior engineer, I am responsible for all technical diving operations. “All I do is sit in the dark and wait to get crushed, or to choke, or to die of thirst. Hunger if I’m extra optimistic. I feel like I’m standing on the gallows. Honestly, I feel like Jean-Pierre was the lucky one.”

She puts her hand on my shoulder. “It’s easy to lose hope in a situation like this, but you mustn’t. Things are bleak, I’ll admit, but even on the gallows, there’s a chance. You could get a last-minute pardon, or a friend might ride up and shoot the rope.”

“Your friends have to know where you are to do that. How could anyone find us down here? No one expects to hear from us for another week; they won’t even know we’re missing until it’s too late.”

“Maybe. Maybe you’re right, and we’ll all die soon. But if you believe that, you might as well already be dead. If you hold on to hope, you hold on to life.”

“I think that’s called denial,” I say, and regret it instantly. The captain’s trying to help, she doesn’t deserve my snide.

She takes her hand off my shoulder and sighs, her chin down to her chest. She stays quiet for a moment, then starts walking away. “Go to the window,” she says on her way to the back wall. “Get as close as you can.”

I don’t understand what she’s getting at, but I feel I owe her for my last remark. I pass under the rail and stand in front of the window, my face no more than fifteen centimeters from the glass, despite the I-beam pressed against my chest. I look out. It is darker than history’s darkest night.

“What do you see?” she asks.

“Nothing,” I say. “All black.”

“Keep looking.” The dim lights go out. “How about now?”

With the lights out, I can’t even see the tip of my nose, much less out the window. I tell her that.

“Let your eyes adjust. Focus. You’ll see it.”

I wait, my eyes locked on the glass. The darkness is disorienting. Soon I can’t even tell if my eyes are open or not; I touch an eyelid to make sure.

Then something clicks, and I notice what I’ve been seeing. There’s a little bit of blue in the black. It is faint, but I’m definitely not imagining; when I look to back into the sub, the blue is gone.

“I see it,” I tell the captain. “I see the light.”

“Good.” She turns the lights back on and the window becomes black again. “Where do you think it’s coming from?”

“From the surface,” I say. “I don’t know the time, but it’s late November, so the sun has to be high in the sky.” When we started our last dive, we were as far south as any watercraft can reach.

“You’re a lifelong-diver,” she says. “You know sunlight can’t reach past two-hundred meters or so. You’ve dived deeper than that.”

“True, but never without artificial light. Maybe if I want full dark like we just did, I would have seen something.”

“Sorry, that’s not the answer.”

I sigh. This pointless exercise is beginning to annoy me. “What is it, then?” I ask.

“Bioluminescence,” she says. “This deep, many species developed the ability to glow, to generate light. We passed through a swarm of bioluminescent plankton on the way down. Antarctic krill, cigar sharks, even the colossal squid use this mechanism. That is what you see. That blue, that’s life, and it always finds a way.”

I feel the tears coming again. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do,” I say. “I genuinely do. But we’re well beyond hope, and we need to admit that.” I point to the window. “Yes, there’s life out there, but not for us. For us there is nothing out there but death.” I feel a tear roll down my cheek. I turn my back to the captain and walk away, towards Strawberry Lane.

“Ade!” she calls, just before I reach the hatch. With a hand on its wheel, I turn my head. “Do not go gentle into that good night,” she says. “Know it?”

I sniff. “Dylan Thomas,” I say.

“That’s right. Do you remember the two main lines?”

“Do not go gentle into that good night,” I recite. “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

“Will you go gentle, or will you rage?”

*

I lie in my bunk. I feel bad for getting so emotional in front of the captain, but with my sandglass almost drained, I can’t hold back anymore. I weep silently into my pillow, trying not to wake up any of the others in the room.

I hear three faint clanks and sit up. That’s new. The hull’s body sounds are usually deeper in tone and more stretched out. The clanks repeat, and I realize someone is knocking on the thick steel door. With the power out, they can’t use the buzzer I’m so used to.

I find the captain and chief behind the door. “Ma- Evelyne, Yotam, what can I do for you?”

They signal me to come out to the Lane. They explain as we walk towards the bridge. “Do you know Kiyoko? The scientist?” asks the chief.

I nod. She’s an electrical engineer and does robotics research on the Triton. I did a couple of dives for her when one of the sub’s exterior arms jammed.

“We need to get you two together,” the chief says. “She thinks she might be able to turn one of your ADSs’ comm system into an SOS beacon, if we can get it to the surface.”

“That’s a no go, I’m afraid,” I say. The Atmospheric Diving Suits my most prized possessions – aluminum suits with regulated air pressure for extreme depth dives; they are essentially one-person submarines. But even they have their limits. “My best one is only rated for five hundred meters. This far down it would be squished like a grape.”

“Not if you flood it,” he says. “Let the water in, equalize the pressure.”

“True, but then it wouldn’t float. Besides…”

The captain catches my eye. The chief is still looking at me, with his back to her. “Rage,” she mouths.

I shake my head and scratch the back of my neck. This plan is jam-packed with flaws; even if we manage to float the ADS and get it to broadcast an SOS signal (and that’s a huge if), this far south, there might be no one there to hear it. Even if they do, we don’t know our exact coordinates. They could scan the sea for weeks and never come close to us. Still, I guess we have to try. For the captain, if for no other reason, I will not go gentle into that good night.

“Alright. I’ll go to her, we’ll figure something out.”

“Great,” says the chief. We stop where Strawberry Lane branches due Port, a dozen meters short of the bridge. “Kiyoko should be at Du Pont’s staff kitchen. Good luck.” He gestures to the branching pathway.

The captain stops me as I turn and I almost trip over my own feet. “Before you go,” she says, then turns to the chief. “Tell him about the other thing,” she says.

“Are you sure? I thought we wanted to keep it on the downlow until we know it’s possible.”

“Ade was a soldier,” she says, “he can keep a secret.”

“Alright.” He turns to me. “We might have a way out.”

My heart stops. “Out? As in up? You can get us to the surface?”

“We did a sweep of the engine rooms. It will be difficult, but we might be able to get one of the generators working for a minute or two, using parts from the other gens. It might be enough to power the buoyancy pumps for one short burst and flush the tanks empty.”

“Empty? Completely? But then…” I don’t want to say the words. I’ve been through one of these once, it is far from pleasant.

“Yes,” the captain says. “We’ll shoot straight up, like a rocket.”

“I don’t have to tell you how dangerous that is,” the chief says.

“Of course not.” Flushing the tanks like that causes the sub to rise immediately. It expands as it climbs, due to the decreasing pressure, which makes it go even faster. Last time I was on a sub that shot up like that, I broke three ribs, and I was one of the lucky ones. That was from three hundred meters. From fifteen hundred, especially if we have hull damage we don’t know about, the Triton might tear itself apart. But then, if we don’t, we’ll die here anyway.

“That’s why we want you to get the beacon up,” says the chief. “If someone finds us soon enough, we won’t have to take that risk.”

“And if we don’t?” I ask the captain. The chief turns and looks at her too.

The captain smirks. “Then we will rage against the dying of the light.”

September 09, 2020 19:55

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9 comments

Emma Mohammad
11:23 Dec 05, 2020

Hi Bar, I've been meaning to ask as I didn't know how else to contact judges. I've submitted 3 stories so far, u receive 10 points simply from being approved but I still have 0. Do you know of any reasons to why they may not be approved? U can read my stories as I assure u they don't contain any harmful, graphic or intense language.

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Ann Niece
15:46 Sep 16, 2020

That ending makes me so anxious! The details had me believing this could really happen

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Rayhan Hidayat
03:53 Sep 14, 2020

I can tell you have plenty of engineering background! The precise, technical dialogue and descriptions really worked wonders in ensuring the reader knows exactly what the problem is and the exact solutions. Really reminds me of a certain Jules Verne novel, also featuring a submarine (which is a compliment!). The emotions also came through really well, this was surprisingly sad. Keep it up, anyways! 😙

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Bar Danino
04:32 Sep 15, 2020

The Triton was called the Nautilus at first, so you weren't the only one who had that novel in mind... Thank you for your supportive comments. Admittedly, I did have a bit of a home advantage when I started this story.

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Rayhan Hidayat
05:10 Sep 15, 2020

Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that. If you’re in it to win it, you should take any advantage you can get! 😉

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S. John
22:37 Sep 13, 2020

This has the makings of a full story and I would love to read more of it. I also appreciate the level of research you put into the story. Very good!

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Bar Danino
04:29 Sep 15, 2020

Thank you! I did have a thought of expanding it to a novelette (or even a collection of loosely-related short stories taking place on the Triton), but I have other projects to focus on right now. Who knows, maybe after I finish my NaNoWriMo project.

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S. John
12:58 Sep 15, 2020

I hadn’t heard of that (NoNoWriMo) until just now when I googled it— sounds like a beneficial tool for story writers. You’re currently writing a book with this tool? What else does it offer? I’m in between manuscripts right now. I’m grieving the one that saw fifty literary agent rejections 😅 So, I am trying to get back on my feet, but I’ll admit, it’s been challenging! Any writing tool that promotes itself as FREE sounds very beneficial!

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Bar Danino
02:35 Sep 16, 2020

It isn't exactly a writing tool (I think), it's a challenge; write 50,000 words of a novel between Nov. 1 and Dec. 1. They have all sorts of tools and tips on the website but I haven't used any of them yet (this year will be my first time participating).

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