Freeman accompanied Evans back to the Dive Bay. "I want constant voice contact. Go slow. Anything at all amiss and you get your ass back." He paused for a moment, perhaps aware that he was giving orders to a superior. "I don't want to be alone down here."
Evans smiled, in spite of his sadness. "I'll be fine. Be back before you know it." Both men were silent as the magnetic suit locks snicked shut. There really was nothing to say. As he pulled the helmet over his head, he thought again of his friend, crushed and freezing in the black depths of the sea. No one should have to die that way.
What could have happened? He'd been out on that very vehicle only
three days ago. There'd been no sign of trouble. He turned
toward the bay and carefully maneuvered the machine down the steps.
He could feel resistance as he entered the water, but the suit's environmental
unit prevented him from feeling the cold.
He almost laughed then. Miller's suspicions were beginning to play on his nerves. What was he thinking? Was the explorer module attacked by some technologically advanced race of sea dwellers? He shook his head. He needed to read less science fiction. He forced the thought from his mind and returned his attention to the matter at hand.
He walked slowly to the airlock and triggered it via the suit's
remote unit. As the door slid open, he drew a breath and entered.
He felt his breathing accelerate. Though he was already submerged, walking
around in the enclosed Dive Bay was completely different from going outside.
He switched on the suit light and forced himself to breath regularly.
In spite of what awaited, he had to remain calm. When the outer door
opened, he stepped out into the Pacific.
"Okay I'm out. I'm heading 270 degrees through."
"You'll pass him. Turn to 265."
He nodded, forgetting momentarily that the other could not see him. To his left, several fish moved away from his light, while others, probably blind continued to swim around him. Several small crab-like creatures scurried from his path as he walked across the ocean bottom. "I can't see it yet. He couldn't have gotten far."
"You should make sight contact in the next minute or so."
"Did Miller mention anything to you about a transmission?"
Evans almost stopped. "Yes. I was there when he received it."
There was a long silence at the other end.
"I'm here. Just odd, that's all."
"I mean, what if there is something down here?"
"Like what?" Before Freeman could answer, he continued. "Okay I see it. I'm moving in for a closer look."
Darkness parted before him and closed in after he'd past. The lamplight was at best a meager attempt to cut a path through the blackness. The explorer module looked out of place in what he could see of the stark landscape. He approached slowly, not certain whether he wanted to find the body or not. As he circled the vehicle, he saw the breach.
"Shit. Looks almost like it was blown outward from the inside. He must have been dead in seconds."
"I think you should come back now."
"Just a minute." He approached the wreckage, looking for something, but not certain what? If he didn't know better, he'd have thought that something on board had exploded. Yet, Evans was intimately familiar with the design of the module and there was nothing in the cabin that would account for that type of anomaly. Sabotage? Suicide? Neither explanation really fit. Reluctantly, he moved even closer.
There wasn't much left of Eric Miller, certainly not enough to bury. He scanned the interior for what seemed like hours but must have been only minutes. He barely heard Freeman's attempts at conversation. As he stood there, peering into the cabin turned coffin, he felt a pang of regret. Perhaps it would be better if man stayed ashore. Around him, the Pacific teamed with life forms that were meant to be here. Homo sapiens was clearly not one of them.
He took one final look at his friend, before turning and starting back toward Atlantis. Freeman kept up the running monologue until he returned.
Once inside the relative safety of base, Evans shed the exoskeleton. Though the chill of the ocean depths could not have touched him, he shivered and moved close to a heating vent. Perhaps he would never feel warm again. He could certainly never go out there without the image of Miller's body looming somewhere in the back of his mind. He closed his eyes and though he was not religious, said a prayer for the soul of his friend.
Freeman found him and helped him back to his quarters. Once
there, he lay on the bed and fell into a deep sleep that lasted many hours.
Dr. Robert Evans was disoriented. It took him many long seconds after waking to remember what had happened. Then the image of his dead colleague filled his mind. He sat up too quickly. His joints felt stiff. He stretched painfully. He had no business sleeping when there was work to be done.
He hoped they wouldn't cancel the rest of the mission, though they almost certainly would. He wondered who would be selected to break the news to Miller's wife. He tried to picture the way his family would react, had it been him instead. With effort, he shrugged off the thought, left his quarters and made his way down to communications.
Once there, he crossed the room and lowered himself slowly into the chair. Evans knew he had to inform mission control of the event, but found himself hesitating. He needed to find the proper words. As he sat, he absently played with the controls, allowing himself, perhaps, to be distracted from the unpleasant responsibility. When the sound began, he almost didn't recognize it. He looked down. It was exactly the same frequency as it had been before. Remembering the last time, he switched on the recorder.
Evans sat and listened, trying to abandon preconceptions. It was not difficult to believe it was some kind of language. He closed his eyes, trying to absorb the sounds as if by osmosis. Then, as he listened, a few recognizable syllables appeared in the midst of the flow of sound. Eric Miller.
He opened his eyes and stared at the console. It had to be his imagination. Or so he thought, until a few moments, when the name was repeated. Evans was so mesmerized by the sound, he almost didn't hear Freeman enter. The younger scientist stood for a while, just listening. Then he approached.
Evans glanced back at him. "This is similar to the transmission Eric told you about."
"Is that a fact?"
It was Freeman's tone that made him turn. Evans was surprised to find his subordinate aiming a pistol at him. "The game is over. At least, for you it is."
Evans' eyes widened. "What the hell are you saying?"
"More than two thirds of the Earth's surface is covered by water. If an alien intelligence were going to land undetected, what better place than the ocean? With all the media attention to UFOs, I'm surprised it hasn't been theorized more often. We've been here for quite some time, of course, but didn't think you would find us this soon. The failure of Project Atlantis will be a tremendous setback to sea exploration."
"This is insane. If there is an alien race, why haven't you contacted us? Why the secrecy?"
"Those are very naive questions. You are a race of barbarians. How could we could trust you? Look at how you treat your own kind. We have no desire to marry into your dysfunctional family."
"So you're going to kill me in cold blood, just as you killed Eric. Who's the barbarian now?"
"It is an unfortunate circumstance, but your death and that of your friend, will give us the time we need."
"The time you need for what?"
Freeman paused, as if listening to the transmission. Evans moved his hand slowly across the console. The other was too involved to notice. He flicked a switch and a high pitched squeal emerged from the speaker on the wall to his right. Freeman turned briefly and Evans lunged at him.
He slammed into the alien, knocking the gun from his hand. Both dove for it, but Freeman was closer. Evans saw the odds, didn't like them and ran from the room. Behind him, the alien let out an unearthly hiss that made Evans' blood run cold. Evans ran as fast as he could. A shot echoed through the corridors and he turned. Behind him, Freeman was closing the distance.
Evans ran to the next section, leapt to the side and hit the emergency button. Immediately, a steel containment door slammed into place, the echoes filling his head. It could be raised of course, but not from that location. It gave him the time to escape.
As he made his way swiftly down the corridor, his mind flew. Freeman was an alien. He repeated it again and again, but still couldn't make himself believe it. If it were true, Arthur Emerson's accident suddenly had far more sinister undertones. Could the aliens have had him killed, so that Freeman could replace him? The implications of such an intricate conspiracy were not lost on him.
If the aliens could arrange such a set of events, what else could they do? What else have they done? How many organizations, businesses and governing bodies had already been infiltrated and to what end? Suddenly, it was very important to get word to the surface.
Evans made his way toward the escape pod. In an emergency, the vehicle could have held all three of them. By himself, it was positively spacious.
He began a systems check, before he was even finished strapping in. He didn't know how much time he had before Freeman found him. He almost ignored the intercom light, but curiosity got the better of him. He pressed the button. "Yes."
"My dear Dr. Evans. Are you so anxious to leave me, that you are willing to risk life and limb in the dark, cold depths of the Pacific?" He could hear the smile in Freeman's voice.
"I think not. Did you think I was idle, while you slept?"
At first, Evans didn't understand. Then he did. "You
son of a bitch!" The fuel gauge read empty.
Evans emerged from the pod and began to move. He had only one advantage. As one of Atlantis' designers, he had a far more intimate knowledge of the layout of the station than his adversary.
He made his way into a nearby maintenance bay. Such shafts ran throughout the station providing access to areas that would normally be hard to reach. During the construction phase, he'd spent much time in such crawl spaces. Freeman would certainly have trouble finding him in there.
The problem was, avoiding the traitor was not his main objective. He had to find a way to get a message to the surface and that meant the communications room, the very place where he'd left the alien. He drew a breath and began the long, slow crawl, hoping desperately that Freeman was out searching for him.
He moved as quietly as he could, without sacrificing speed. As he pulled himself along, Evans constantly strained to hear any hint of his nemesis, not that it was likely through the steel walls. By the time he reached his goal, he was bathed in sweat and a pounding had begun in his right temple. He spent several more minutes waiting and listening, before lifting the grate above him and emerging into a corridor. The communications center was very close.
Now that he was out in the open, Evans moved more swiftly. The fact that Freeman still had the gun didn't help to calm him, though he reached communications without incident. He crossed the room to the console. He needed to get enough information out and somehow not sound like a madman. It wouldn't be easy.
Only when he was seated did he notice the intercom light flashing. He ignored it for a few moments, before once more giving into temptation. Pausing only to activate the recorder, Evans pressed the button. The voice that came through was not quite Freeman's. "Hello there."
Evans didn't respond.
"I'll be taking my leave of you now. If you look at the monitor behind you, you should be able to see me."
Slowly, Evans turned. At first, he didn't understand. When he did, he cursed. Freeman had donned the exoskeleton and was now outside standing beside the antennae assembly. The suit's great claw was poised around the connection cable. Without that system, he would be unable to raise the surface.
He shook his head in horror as the claw closed. It took only five seconds for it to cut through the thick cable.
"It is now no longer necessary for me to return to Atlantis. You see, I've been recalled. The human race has come too close and my people can no longer wait to take action. We were hoping that it would be many years yet, but alas, it is not so. I suppose I owe you some small explanation, since it was partly your own ingenuity that helped bring about the mass destruction that will soon occur."
Evans watched the monitor, unable to respond.
"In a way it's sort of ironic. You may well survive life on the surface. After all, you can sustain yourself down here for some time. And with no way to leave and no way to communicate, you're no longer a threat to us. Unfortunately, the rest of humanity is."
Evans found his voice. "What will you do?"
"Within a short span of time, life on the surface will cease to exist. It is the only way we can protect ourselves."
"We'll find a way to stop you."
"Who? No one knows about us, remember. Even now, you can barely believe it yourself. Perhaps, if they had warning, your people could find some defense or even understand what was happening, while it was happening, but who's going to inform them? Certainly not you."
"You don't have to be our enemy. We could negotiate. I'm certain our respective governments could come to a compromise."
The was a short silence, during which, Evans began to check the system. The sabotage had been effective. There was no way to send a message.
"There will be no compromise. We have seen the way humans honor their commitments and have no desire to extend to you that trust. And now, I have wasted enough time. I leave you with one final thought. As a scientist, you should be able to appreciate that natural selection always favors the creature most fit to survive. We are that creature." With those words, the image on the monitor faded.
Evans sat silently. He was helpless. Stranded a mile below the surface of the ocean completely unable to communicate or leave. And every moment he sat there, the human race came just a little closer to extinction. He dropped his head on the console and closed his eyes. Think. There had to be some solution.
He bolted upright as sound suddenly filled the room. It took him a moment to understand. While he couldn't send a report, the alien transmissions were close enough to receive without the benefit of an antenna. He might even be hearing the very orders that would end life on Earth as he knew it. He held his hands over his ears but could not drown out the sound or its implications. He screamed until his throat was raw, until he could stand it no longer. Finally, defeated, he fled the room barely able to think.
After a time, he began to work with the seismic equipment, almost absently. He wondered how long humanity had left and how its destruction would be accomplished. He tried not to think about his friends and family, with little success. What would they be doing when the end came? Would it be a terrible explosion or perhaps some deadly incurable disease that finally did them in?
As he worked, charting and plotting, an idea began to form. A long shot certainly, but anything was better than waiting. With growing determination, he began to compile data. He couldn't overlook anything. He logged a full report, including a copy of the alien broadcast and the recording of Freeman's last message. He compressed the report into a digital communications packet and returned to his lab. He had to get it right the first time. He wouldn't have a second chance.
After checking his computations several times, he entered the escape
pod. He placed the report disk in the unit's communication's system.
Of course, the limited output of the smaller transmitter couldn't reach
the surface from this depth, but if he could get within 450 fathoms of
the surface, the closest repeater would receive it.
Next he began to type commands into the keyboard. Though not as proficient as Miller had been, he would be fast enough. He had to be. Using remote commands, he maneuvered the crab toward the escape pod. He had tested the response briefly from the base and knew it was still functional. Intense concentration prevented him from thinking about his friend. It wasn't long before he had visual contact. The next phase would be the most difficult.
Using what skill he possessed, Evans used the crab's remote arms to maneuver the pod away from Atlantis. He continually checked his position and the time. At first he thought he might not make it, though he forced himself to remain calm. He would have no time to reposition himself, if he didn't do it right the first time. He continually had to stop to wipe the sweat from his brow, though it wasn't really all that hot. He could hear his own breathing clearly above the hum of the pod's power system.
Finally, when he was satisfied, he backed the crab away and let out a breath. There was nothing to do now, but wait. He reduced all systems to minimum consumption, fully aware that the battery that sustained life support did not have an infinite charge. His own life didn't matter. He was as good as dead anyway, but if his calculations were off, the rest of humanity would be joining him.
He waited there in darkness, breathing slowly, occasionally allowing small amounts of artificial atmosphere into the pod. He didn't know how long he had, but if it didn't happen soon, it would all be for naught.
He'd almost fallen asleep when the vibration began. Suddenly he was alert. It was the only warning. Within a few seconds the pod lurched and was raised upward. Below him, the volcanic eruption flared with a violence that would have torn the ship apart, had he been any closer. He watched the temperature gauge rise and found himself wondering if the pod could handle the increase in heat. He felt warmer, though it may well have been adrenaline that caused the sensation.
He switched on the communications console and prepared to transmit. Two words blinked green on the black background. "No carrier" The ship continued its bumpy ascent.
He continued to ride the shock wave ever higher. He could feel the cabin's pressure changing as it adjusted to the sea around it. He swallowed several times trying to clear his ears, but found himself unable. Several severe medical conditions could occur from such a sudden change in pressure, but he wouldn't be alive long enough to worry about any of them. He kept his eyes on the monitor.
At seven hundred fathoms, the hull temperature began to drop again. His head began to pound, though whether it was from physical or emotional pressure he couldn't tell. He kept his finger poised over the transmit button. The words on the screen blinked back at him relentlessly.
Six hundred fathoms and still climbing, though his rate of ascent was beginning to slow. He cursed softly. He wouldn't make it. He'd almost lost consciousness when a low beeping caught his attention. He studied the monitor, but found himself unable to make out the words. At least they were no longer flashing. He hit the transmit button all too aware that drawing each breath was becoming increasingly difficult. He knew he didn't have much longer.
He tried to occupy his mind. He thought of Dodger stadium at night. It was the only place he'd ever eat a hot-dog. He had spent many hours there, watching baseball. It was the only sport he enjoyed. Perhaps this year, they would win the series.
He thought about his mother and how she would take his death when she finally received the news. Perhaps she'd be cooking pot roast. That was his favorite. She made it whenever he came home for dinner, which had been all too infrequently in recent years.
Finally, almost reluctantly, he thought of June and Elayne, his
wife and daughter. He had managed to avoid that until now.
What would become of them? His daughter had just turned seven. How
would she cope with his passing?
Perhaps he lost consciousness for a time, he must have, for the next thing he knew, he heard another beep. He tried desperately to interpret the flashing words. There were two of them. He struck himself in the face and looked again. His vision swam. Slowly the screen resolved before him. He did cry then.
As he sank into the cold pacific waters, only one thing mattered
in the whole universe. He looked at the two words again. "Transmission
complete." He closed his eyes and drifted. Suddenly, it no
longer mattered that he was going to die. Whether they believed it
or not, they'd have to check the report and somehow, humanity would find
a way, just as he had. June and Elayne would make it too. At
least, he had given them a chance.
Steve Lazarowitz lives in Brooklyn, New York with his wife, his ten year old daughter and their many pets. His work has appeared in Jackhammer, Exodus, Little Read Writing Hood, Dreamforge, Dragonsclaw, Titan and Net Novels second anthology. His story Brimstone and Nitro will soon appear in Aphelion and Net Novels is compiling an anthology of his original work, which should be available shortly.