"Beautiful, mysterious and a bit cramped, I'm afraid. The next station I design will be bigger."
"The Atlantis Research Station took more than five years to design and another to build at a staggering cost of one hundred and fifty million dollars, much of it privately funded. Why did you feel such a station was necessary?"
"The ocean is Earth's last great frontier. It's part of our everyday lives and yet vast areas of it remain completely unexplored. At the Pacific's deepest points are mountain ranges that dwarf the Himalayas and chasms that make the grand canyon look like a crack in the sidewalk. There are forms of life down here that task the imagination. Were all life on the surface to perish today, many of these creatures would remain unaffected."
"How long will you be down there?"
"Barring unforeseen circumstances, this mission is to last three months, during which time my two companions and I will record our findings for the benefit of mankind. At this time, I'd like to dedicate this mission to Dr. Arthur Emerson."
"You're referring, of course, to your colleague that was hit by a drunk driver a few months ago. It must have been quite a setback to the program."
Evans nodded. "Fortunately, Michael Freeman, who replaced him at the last minute, has been a godsend. Though he has only recently come aboard, he's been invaluable."
"I understand that your wife and daughter are listening to this live broadcast back at home in Redwood City. Is there anything you'd like to say to them."
"Hi June. Hi Elayne. I'll be home before you know it and I'll take you both out for your favorite food."
"And what kind of food would that be?"
Evans smiled. "Why, Seafood, of course."
The reporter chuckled. "That's about all the time we have. Good luck, Dr. Evans and thanks for joining us. This is Chad Rawlings live from Atlantis Control in San Francisco. Back to you Gene."
Dr. Robert Evans continued to smile, until he was certain he was off the air. Finally, he rose and shook his head. Eric Miller grinned at his colleague's annoyance. Miller was both an oceanographer and electrical engineer. Like Evans, he'd been involved with Project Atlantis since the beginning. "Way to go Rob. Can I have your autograph?"
Evans scowled at him. "You can't imagine how much I hate that kind of thing. How is it that astronauts never have to go through that?"
Miller rose and grinned. "That's because they're funded by popular appeal. Space is the final frontier. Don't you watch Star Trek?"
Evans nodded. He'd entertained those same thoughts himself.
The very mention of the word space brings to mind images of aliens, star
ships and black holes. No one has ever seen an alien before.
Everyone's seen a fish, which is why is was so difficult to get funding
for the project initially. He walked toward the door, anxious to
return to his research.
Evans turned, stared at the console and sighed. He'd been
so distracted by the interruption of routine, he'd forgotten to reset the
communications parameters. He'd have to be more careful in the future.
He returned to the console. As he made the adjustment, a burst of
noise momentarily filled the room.
Miller was already sliding into the contoured chair, making minute
adjustments as he sat. Evans leaned forward, straining to make some
sense of the sound. Miller continued his attempts to clear up interference.
Miller nodded. "The source is very close."
"I doubt it. I know this sounds crazy, but I think its coming from beneath the sea floor."
Evans looked down at his companion to make certain he wasn't joking. Then, he cursed, leaned forward and switched on the recorder.
The two sat for a long time, trying in vain to gain some insight
into the strange transmission. An hour later, it stopped abruptly,
leaving in its wake a myriad of unanswered questions.
Afterwards, Evans didn't have time to think about the incident, though at odd intervals it would play through his mind. Under other circumstances he might have been fascinated by the occurrence, but the press of work required most of his concentration. The phenomenon would have to wait.
With a background in both marine biology and geology, Evans found
he didn't have enough to time to handle his real work. Each day,
remote aquatic robots collected new biological specimens, many having never
before been catalogued. Sorting through each haul was more than enough
for one man, but it didn't stop Evans from fulfilling his primary objective.
Equally fascinating were the creatures that lived around those
vents, deriving their nutrition directly from the chemical reaction.
Until recently, such organisms were unknown to science.
In spite of his hunger, he almost gave into temptation, when a creature that looked almost like a tailless scorpion caught his attention. He reached for a pair of tongs, then pushed them away with a sigh of resignation. He really did need food. The decision made, he rose, forced his eyes from the holding tanks and walked quickly from the lab. After all, the sooner he finished, the sooner he could return to his work.
As he moved through the narrow corridors, Dr. Robert Evans felt
great pride. Not only had he helped to design the Atlantis Research
facility, but much of it had been from his original concept. Evans
had always loved the sea and this base was a reflection of that love.
And this was only the beginning.
By the time he reached the mess, Evans was so deeply involved in his visions of the future, he was startled when Miller spoke. "Hey there. I'm surprised you remembered to eat."
Evans grinned. "You never seem to forget."
"Hey, I have to maintain my figure."
Evans walked to the counter and broke out a standard rations pack. As he carried his meal to the table, Miller shook his head. "How do you eat that? We do have real food, you know."
"I don't have the time for food. I've got at least a hundred
new specimens to catalog and believe me, it's harder than it looks.
Several of the coelenterates that I thought were new species were actually
juveniles of known species. After the mission is over, it will take
me months if not years to sort it all out."
Evans stared at his companion between bites. "A language." He didn't bother to try to mask his skepticism.
Miller nodded. "I've been working overtime on the problem. I took several courses in linguistics at Columbia, you know."
"And who speaks this language? Are we talking Russians,
cetaceans or what?"
Immediately, Evans was sorry. The fact was, Miller was competent if not brilliant in his field and deserved better. "All right. What have you got?"
"The repetition of the sounds is simply not natural. The same sets of syllables are repeated too often for it to be a totally random occurrence. The signal itself is not terribly different from the type we use, though admittedly it was broadcast at an odd wave length. The bandwidth is definitely not natural."
For a few moments the two sat in silence. What could possibly exist on or beneath the ocean floor that would emulate a communication signa? Evans spoke first. "Okay, assuming we haven't accidentally stumbled upon another country's secret project, what the hell is it?"
Miller raised an eyebrow and sighed. "I wish I knew."
"We should tell Mike about this."
"Give me a day or two. I'll have more by then. You know how he is."
Evans did know. Michael Freeman was younger than both of them and quite the skeptic. He hadn't been in the field long enough to know that almost anything was not only possible, but likely. "Very well, but let me know if you get something."
Miller nodded. Both men were so lost in thought, the remainder
of the meal was eaten in silence.
As he worked, his thoughts kept returning to his conversation with Miller. What if there was something down here? Could some aquatic creature have developed sentience beneath the surface of the ocean? If so, what would their civilization look like? With great effort, Evans curbed his imagination. After all, there was probably a simple, logical explanation.
The next time it came up was two days later, shortly before Miller
was about to go outside. External missions were scheduled throughout
their stay and it was Miller's turn. Evans couldn't wait to go again.
Evans helped Miller climb inside, while Freeman monitored the operation from the control center. As he waited for the results of the system diagnostics, Miller turned toward Evans. "By the way, I told Mike about the transmission. He didn't quite laugh at me, but he clearly thinks I've lost my mind."
"What did you expect?"
Miller shrugged. He turned toward the controls, activated the intercom and spoke. "How's it on your end?"
After a second, Freeman's deep voice came back. "Everything checks out here. Remember, don't go out too far and don't stay too long. Mission parameters state no more than thirty minutes."
Miller smiled. "You mean don't be like Rob. Well, you don't have to worry. I'm positively claustrophobic out there."
"Strange problem for an oceanographer. See you in half an hour."
Evans stepped back and watched the clear dome slide forward to cover the cockpit. After a few final checks, the vehicle sank beneath the surface. Evans watched until it disappeared from sight, then started toward the command center to help out on that end.
Freeman was busy monitoring readings when he entered. He stood behind the younger scientist, watching to make certain everything ran smoothly. After all, officially, he was in charge. After a few minutes, Miller's voice emerged from the speaker.
"It's so beautiful out here. Dark and cold, but beautiful."
"Roger that," replied Freeman. All three men had been outside already.
"I'm moving toward the volcanic area."
"Remember what we've discussed," said Evans. "We know in theory what stress tolerance the crab can take, but let's not put it to the test, okay?"
"You don't have to convince me."
Evans smiled. Freeman watched the screen. "You're getting a little close. Maybe you should back off a bit."
Miller didn't reply, though the crab did change direction. It continued forward for another few seconds, then stopped completely. Freeman waited for forward motion to resume. A full minute passed before he tried to raise the explorer module again. "Eric?...Eric, do you copy?"
There was no reply. Freeman turned back to meet Evan's concerned expression. "Try it again." Even as he spoke, Evans sat at the next terminal and began to enter instructions.
Beside him, Freeman complied. "Eric, this is Atlantis. Do you read?"
Evans called up the remote status display, which gave him access to the crab's control panel. In an emergency, he could operate it remotely from any terminal. He stared at the monitor. "Shit. Cabin temperature's dropping fast. Sixty degrees Fahrenheit, fifty-nine..."
"Damn it, Eric, get out of there."
"Eric..." Freeman's voice fell off. "Cabin pressure is increasing. There's been a hull breach." And that was it. Pressure at that depth would kill a man instantly.
Helplessly, Evans continued to watch the temperature plummet. For the next few minutes, the readings held a bizarre fascination for him. He wondered what it would feel like to know that you were dying, and how long it had been before Miller realized. Somewhere in the distance Freeman's voice continued the attempt to establish contact. For how long he stared at the numbers, he didn't know. Only when Freeman's hand touched his arm, did he turn.
"One of us has to go out there."
"He's beyond our help."
Evans nodded. "I know that, but we need to know what happened. I've been out in that craft. If there is some design flaw, we have to find out."
Both men looked at each other and then back at the monitors. Evans knew he was the logical choice. As the newest member of the project, Freeman had logged far less time in the exoskeleton. If there was something dangerous, Evans had a far better chance of handling it.
"All right. Let's log the incident and I'll suit up."
"No. But after what happened, I don't know that I'd be comfortable in the exoskeleton either."
Evans sighed. "They don't pay me to be comfortable."
It was the last he said on the matter.
Steve Lazarowitz lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, ten year old daughter and enough animals to shake a stick at. His short fiction and articles have appeared in The Little Read Writer Hood, Jackhammer, Titan Ezine and Dragonsclaw.net. His short story "As Luck Would Have It" appears in NetNovels second Anthology.