Luke Spry (Nottingham Trent University, UK)
We all had such dreams of coming here, all we brave settlers. Benthic City, the first sub-aquatic colony. We imagined an oceanic Amazon. Molluscs and fish and sea grass swaying in breeze-like currents, life by the fluorescent light of deep dwellers. What we found was a disappointing abyss, the mirrored glass of the habitation dome looking out onto black empty nothing, interrupted only by occasional furious life and death struggles of creatures so removed from our understanding as to be obscene. What could we do but turn inward? The only things which had meaning, that we could touch and understand were raised up by human hands. We tried to forget the depths, pretended the glassy dome was just another sky. The news brought to us from the surface became as vital to us as the food.
Outside, the abyss waited. Sometimes it disgorged freakish beasts we ignored.
We tried to fill the fathomless night with our humanity, like the faded posters plastering the bottom of the dome. It worked for a time. We brought down a little church and a casino, arranged dances and screened movies. Some talked about starting an amateur dramatics society to work through Shakespeare’s folio. News of technology developed on land offered the chance of signal boosters to allow access to telephone and television. How I missed the television, its light and susurrus filling the empty space of a home. As a technician and engineer I was part of the team who were going to help install the machinery. If Benthic could afford it. If it were ever developed. So many uncertainties.
Then the shark came.
There are a great deal of things unknown about sharks. Did you know they sell their body parts as a cure for cancer? Sharks don’t develop it. Everyone knows about the teeth, those terrible ever replenishing jaws, the part that endures beyond death, a paeleological epitaph to their purpose. Their remains are scarce to non-existent. Perhaps because they break down so fast, or the vengeful scavengers crawl out to get revenge. Or perhaps because they just go on forever…
The shark that swam over Benthic City dome was a monster, bigger than a whale shark with fins as broad and long as the sky. Illuminated by the ambient glow the dome could not trap, you could pick out the traces of ancient scars, tooth marks and a single gash on its sail-like dorsal fin. It pulsed overhead, hide rough as daggers, vast as an alien moon, its mouth closed as if we onlookers were not worthy of a view into the maw that must have devoured countless lives. This beast may have swept the waves as humans made tentative voyages across the Philippines; descended the lightless deep as Caesar claimed dominion of a world it abandoned. As it passed down and over the abyssal shelf, once again out of human knowledge, it flicked its colossal fluke, crushing the airlock. We were sealed in.
The panic was brief, subdued by the inevitability of our predicament. The shark’s careless motion had reminded us all of what we had tried to obliviate: We were in an alien world populated by randomly hostile denizens, a place that could at any moment become completely inimical to us. We were trapped, measuring every gasp of air.
Most of you quickly formed into camps; diversity compacted under the great pressure and close quarters. The loudest demanded action. Something must be done about the ferocious wildlife always at our borders. Where were the guns? How were we supposed to keep ourselves safe? Why had the monster felt it could come so close? The questions shouted through the winding tunnels of the city, echoing out into the waters. All the slimy swimmers in the dark should know to fear us, we should remake ourselves into Benthic Fortress.
Yes, something should be done: the City should be less specialised, less visible to the deep. It never should have been the case that everything entered the city through a single point. It was too vulnerable. Proposals were drawn up for alterations to the layout of the city, a second docking station. The light pollution would need to be controlled, a curfew instituted. Money would be raised for the signal booster and planned rationing quotas and proposed a refocusing on essentials and not luxuries – though what luxuries I have no idea.
This was impotent, of course. We could just barely alert the surface to our distress, any specifics were out of the question.. The supply sub was our only direct line to the surface, and it would not be able to dock until the airlock was repaired. The drones, piloted remotely from within the city, broke down often. Their galvanised parts were only so resistant to the crushing pressure. At least once the initial leaks were patched we were in no immediate danger.
There were those who wished to leave. Many believed – irrationally – that the shark’s presence and actions were deliberate, a targeted attack even. The ocean had rejected us, assaulted our home to force us to leave. Why fight it?
I, and some others, saw a different message in the arrival of the great herald. What else could sealing us in Benthic City be but an invitation to stay? There were a few of us. The Benthic Gazette interviewed an outlier. Nick Murr babbled about fish gods and lunacy. The hardcore, we real devotees, rolled our eyes with the rest of you and scoffed. Mad man, you all said. We knew he was an idiot. The shark wasn’t god, just the messenger.
Out beyond the shelf, though…
You think I’m insane, that all of us are. We’ve been driven over the edge by the pressure or the air or the isolation. You’re wrong. All of us know what we’re doing. All of us made contact.
Do you remember what you were doing when it passed over? Of course you do.
I told you I was a technician. I was working up on the dome, some routine maintenance, when it swam right over me. I pressed my face to the glass. Momentarily I felt like a child at an aquarium staring at some piscine monstrosity. A thrill of awareness shook me as I realised if anything I was the curiosity in the tank. Those teeth, as many as all the lives in Benthic City. Ancient hide, scarred and jagged and healed over and again. Then I caught the shark’s eye and all I thought was gone as I plunged into those fallen dead stars. What did I see? Nothing? No. I saw a deeper emptiness in which I swam forever in the yawing dark. I could hear a soundless song, vibrating the entirety of Benthic City almost imperceptibly.
How could I see that? Nothing but a reflection in the shark’s eye? Think. Think!
The glass of the dome is one way.
We can look out but nothing else passes through the glass.
This was a message imparted to me.
My old hopes rekindled, knowing that some communication had occurred between me and it. Here in the deep was a promised land. Promised by who or what I won’t speak of, but it waits. Those who heard the shark’s message found each other, discussed what we knew and planned as depths yet uncharted called through the glass.
In silence Benthic tottered closer to the abyss. Everyone was hoarding: food, supplies, and suspicions. Distrust rose over everyone’s head. A fist-fight between two men over a jar of coffee nearly resulted in civil war. Murr was found beaten senseless and a self-organised militia set themselves up to watch the corridors. It wasn’t us. We were watching the glass, waiting for the next message, straining for the music. We were all holding our breaths, eking out the moments. But the wait grew too long. Like drowning men we started to thrash. We discussed plans to push things forward. Our bombs, our traps, even our crude little guns all cobbled together from the slough of the city.
When contact came, it was not from our god. A sub was on its way to relieve our beleaguered colony. Somehow, someone had cobbled together the promised booster from spares and relic electronics, transmitted garbled truths that the intervening water further drowned. They knew little of the reality of our situation in the city, piecing together fragments of mad fish-cultists and gun enthusiasts fighting in the streets. We had to make our move. It had been decided that Benthic City had become too unsafe, too great a risk for anything but rudimentary scientific observation.
We come to this: the city drowning, us escaping and your blood in the water. They were going to take us from here along with all of you. We can’t have that. You would gather us all up and stuff us together like tinned meat before the surface doctors were ready to process us. They would watch us, faces caring and afraid against our glass, as we gasped the dry air cluttered with human muck. A diagnosis! Perhaps a paper. Drugs stuffed into our mouths, we would be dragged off, isolated from one another. Far from the embracing sea, we would putrefy in the sun, the deep music just audible. We would listen, stupefied, and go truly mad with our impotence. We have a purpose down here, and we can’t let them know where we have gone or why. They are not ready.
The messenger spoke to us. We are going to pursue it over the edge and into the deeper dark, the six of us, and find what was promised. We need the sub. And we need you to have never seen us go.
Luke Spry lives and works in Nottingham, England, having moved from the coast to study English with Creative Writing at Nottingham Trent University. He has been described variously (and often contradictorily) as a people person, a man of few words, a goth, raised by wolves, a gentleman, a bounder and the most sensible person you will ever meet. Abyss is his first published short story.