Something hits the hull with a clang and bounces off. Silence.
A second object hits us, and for a moment I think we are saved, but then it explodes. The submarine lurches. No sooner has the noise receded than does a third and a fourth charge blow near us. The metal of the submarine groans, as though it has a complaint, that it has lived too long and seen too many miles under the waves to continue in this manner. More explosions come, and I am thrown from my feet. Bodies dance in an unholy jumble of limbs in the bridge. The radio crackles, and someone in engineering – perhaps Anton himself – barks that there is a fire.
“Down bubble, full!” I cry, but there is no one at the helm. As the submarine shudders, I go to the console and arc us downwards as fast as we can go. Two more charges detonate, hastening us on our way. I can smell smoke. Blood.
More explosions, but they are further away now. “Depth!” I demand, and someone sounds out readings until the gauge shatters.
“We are too deep!” cries Alain, his cheek bloodied, face bruised.
“Too deep for the charges, yes!” I cry.
And then the charges stop. The destroyer believes us finished, or in any case too deep to recover ourselves. “Level us off! Hurry hurry!”
“No control, Captain! No power!”
“What are you saying, no power?” I grab the radio. “Anton. Engineering! Respond!”
The radio crackles. I spin on Alain. “Get to engineering. Tell him that if he does not restore power, we are going to be crushed in the deep. Do you understand, Second?” Alain runs off, as though glad to be moving – as though glad to be away from me.
I go to the helm. There is no way to ease our descent. Almost straight down, we are slipping into the depths. “Where are we relative to the Trench?” I ask my navigator.
“Location is uncertain, Captain.”
The sailor takes a breath. “We are directly over it, sir.”
Ah Arnold, I think to myself. There are many things that we can do with our lives that alter who we are – both the things we should do and the things we know that we should not. How it is possible that I can captain a vessel with the power to kill so many? What permission is given me by what God to have such authority? Only moments ago, I thought I would consign those who are the enemy to the greatest depth imaginable. And now we slip through the water, Arnold, ourselves on the way to that unholy place, the one that no man has ever seen.
The impact on the sea bottom is like a detonation itself. The nose of the submarine crunches into the bed. Then the rear of the boat strikes the bottom. Lights flicker. Metal groans as though it is about to rupture, and I wonder how it is possible that the boat does not simply snap in half.
Men are screaming, in fear or pain. I can still smell smoke. “Will someone put out that fire?” I demand, and send a crew to report on damage.
Alain brings Anton to the bridge. The stubby engineer is huffing for breath. “What have you done to my boat, Captain?”
“We’re on the sea bottom!”
“Impossible!” yells Anton. “This boat does not tolerate such depth. What is our depth, anyway?” I tell him. His face blanches. “We are lucky, Captain. Some oddity of the water salinity and its latent density, or its temperature. We should be crushed.”
“Engineer,” I whisper to him, so that only he and Alain can hear me, “understand something. We should have gone into the Trench. We should be dead already. But we have a chance if we can get the engine moving.”
“Captain, I can put my arms around this boat if you want. I can even give it a kiss if you please – and won’t say that I haven’t done so in the past! When a man has no wife and no girl, a boat will do. It will surely do! But this boat’s propeller will not turn. We do not have enough battery to start it up. The only way possible is if the current is strong enough to turn the damn thing and give it some inertia.”
“Can you not just drain the batteries all the way?” asks Alain.
Anton rolls his eyes. “Only if we want to kill power to all other systems. Presumably, we would like to keep breathing as we make our escape, no?”
“Captain,” comes a voice.
“Not now, Childs!” I tell the young man. I flip my gaze between Anton and Alain, one shaking and sodden with fear, the other so enamored of his boat that he doesn’t seem to understand that his death is at hand.
“Captain!” Childs insists, stepping forward. His arm hangs limp at his side, hopelessly broken. Young man that he is, he holds his ground as I glare at him. “Captain. Listen.”
“To what, Childs?” I demand. “To our injured and our broken systems? To the whirring of a propeller that will not spin? Or is there some good music that you are playing for our amusement?”
But then I hear it. A shudder runs through the boat. A moment later, another. “What is that?” asks Anton. “What touches my boat in this way?”
I go to the hull and put my hands on the metal. It comes again, the touch as of something familiar but long forsaken, almost like hands on the other side of the metal, connecting with mine. It is a caress, almost loving in its insistence and rhythm.
“An enemy vessel of some kind?” asks Alain.
“Down here?” demands Anton. “No vessel is down here. This is not a place for boats!”
“Sonar sees it,” says Childs. “It is big, Captain.”
He blinks. Then he shakes his head.
The noises continue, as of something considering the submarine. What are you? I ask the depths. We should be dead. We already are dead. To the destroyer lurking above, we are done.
“Anton,” I say to the engineer.
“Captain, I figure I know what you are going to say and it is a poor idea…”
“Do it,” I tell him, not unmoved by his concern. “Prepare my suit. I will go out there.”
“The suit’s not pressure tested for this depth!” protests the stubby man.
“Neither is the submarine!”
He shakes his head and races off. Alain and Childs stare at me, but they can’t say anything. I move past them and through the ship. Men are running, attending to the damage and the leaks, and putting out the remnants of the fire. I nod to them as I pass.
In my cabin, I close the door. The jug of whiskey has tumbled and rolled under the bunk. The bible has fallen to the ground and is open to a page I have never read before. But the letter to Arnold remains on the table. It is as I remembered it. Words come to my mind, words that should be added – that could be but for the present circumstances. I read the letter, what it means to me, what it is intended to say and why. I think of all the things we should do, and those that we must not. I think about love, and death itself, and that place where they sometimes come together.
When I am done, I tuck the letter into my shirt.