Anton finishes the strapping on my suit. He fiddles with my helmet. “You disagree with this?” I ask him.
He asks me to bend over, short as he is, to inspect the latching on my suit. “If I am to die, better to have the thing done inside the boat than outside it.”
He latches the helmet and closes the inner door. Water rises in the chamber. My breath becomes warm, almost unbearable, but the water is cold. Soon, it is above my head and the chamber is flooded. A light flashes at the outside door indicating that pressure has been equalized. I turn the wheel and unlock the bolt.
What is the greatest darkness in the world, I wonder? Is it when I close my eyes in the middle of the night, in some moonless part of the world? Or will we find true darkness in some clime of space, when we are able to traverse it, and after we have found a way to resist the urge to bring war into the heavens? And yet, it could be that the truest darkness rests in our hearts, those that are turned against each other so often, as they are now in the endless landscape of this war.
The door opens to the sea, admitting a darkness unlike anything I have ever seen.
I step out, ensuring that my tether is attached to the boat. The sea bottom is soft, like a living thing. If there are fish or sea creatures, I cannot see them. If there is a current, it is too soft to feel through my suit – the very suit that somehow has not collapsed inwards under the pressure.
I turn on a torch, but it does little. The beam cuts a few feet into the darkness, no more. I turn the torch on the submarine and begin a slow walk along its length. Each step is a labour. As I move, I touch the hull, witnessing the precarious condition of the metal. There are bruises everywhere I look, places where I can imagine that the steel would buckle and initiate an implosion. And within this steel construct? Sixty-five souls that are counting on me for survival.
A tug of current makes me stumble as I walk along the submarine. The next drift pulls me away from the hull. I grasp for the tether, but it is yet loose. Backwards I go, carried by a strength that I by myself am not one to contest with. As the tether finally reaches its limit, it snaps taut, and I am stopped – but below my rear foot, there is no ground. No, there is only emptiness there.
I spin and shine the torch at the ground, but it does not exist. Before me is the darkest, most complete maw that has ever existed.
I freeze. Here I stand before the Diamantina Trench, the first soul to have ever gazed upon it. The ocean currents threaten to tip me inside, and I wonder what that would feel like, what kind of drop it would be and how long the suit would survive before the pressure became too great.
The submarine missed the Trench by mere feet. Perched at the edge, the boat is as nothing compared to the size of the darkness that is before me now. I get to my knees, as though it is time to pray. Perhaps it is! I think to myself. My lips murmur words from the bible, but all they truly say is Arnold’s name, and the last words I uttered to him before setting out for war and sea.
I lean over the edge of the Trench and look down, shining the torch into that infernal depth. But this is no place for light, so I turn the torch off, sending everything into blackness. There I kneel, supplicant to the ocean, wondering if it would not be a kinder demise to give myself to the darkness than to flounder with the lost souls I came here with, waiting for the oxygen to run out. It would be a simple thing to detach the tether on my suit…
And yet as I gaze into the depths, there is a light there. It is far away, perhaps at the bottom itself, but surely a light nevertheless. I watch it, breathing hard. Are my eyes useless now? Has the pressure sapped me of my faculties as it prepares me for my demise? But no, this is a light, here in this immense blackness, rising from the depths of the Trench. Faster and faster it comes, illuminating the walls and casting a glow through the chasm itself. It is a greater rift in the sea bottom than I could have imagined, all that rock and that cool water, but this is of no moment now, not while this thing rises, higher and higher, as I perch at the edge of this terrible depth.
“Captain,” comes Alain’s voice in my radio, “please respond.”
How to find words? I wonder. “No,” I tell him. “No.”
The light rises until the creature is at the lip of the Trench. Glowing yellow wings flap with ease, lifting it. Several times the size of the submarine, it flies rather than swims, exudes light rather than produces it. A maw comes too, at the end of a long neck, as though this is a dragon of old, only one that lives in this infernal depth. I stagger back, for the light is almost too bright. Before it, the Trench is illuminated, the submarine too, and so much of the sea bottom that I am awed before it all.
“No,” I tell Alain.
Ah Arnold, I think to myself. What story would I tell you if I have the chance to do so, of this? Is it a story like the one where I found you, only a few months ago, on a pathway above a beach? You asked me about the book I was reading; I asked you why you cared. There we sat, talking as the sun lowered into the California sea, and over a beer I asked you what you were looking for in life. I will never forget your response. You sat there at the bar, the music playing, and told me that you wanted the things that are forbidden to human eyes, and unknown to human hands. You wanted the lightest kiss. The purest life, no matter how sullied or impure it might seem to others, for to you – all you saw was light, and that is what you see still.
The creature from the Trench waves its wings above me, and the glow increases until long stretches of the water above are illuminated too. And there I see it – the gentle fall, the ponderous motion of small things descending towards the beast. They fall into the glow, becoming brighter and brighter as they touch the light of the creature, until I can see them for what they are – people. These are men, sailors no doubt, consigned to the depths because that is what men are meant for when they seek the sea but find only war. They are the men of the destroyer that I sought to ravage, I think to myself, themselves succumbed to an attack from an unknown quarter even as they sought to kill us.
As the bodies descend, the creatures waves its wings. Its long neck protrudes, and the maw flashes. It picks a body out of the current and chews it whole. Then it does the same with another, and others after that, these languid swimmers who exist for seemingly no other purpose than to feed this demon. Dozens of sailors tumble towards the Trench, but none reach it, for the creature is ravenous. The creature is all.
Is this the fate that awaits me, too, I wonder? Here, at the bottom of the sea, am I finished my story, or should there be something else to tell?
“Second,” I say into my radio. “Respond.”
“Flood tube three. Snap fire the torpedo. No string. Let it self-detonate.”
“Captain!” cries Alain. “It will detonate within ten seconds of the submarine!”
“Do it,” I tell him. “Second. Your life, again, depends on what you do now.”
Silence. Static. Then his voice returns, “Captain. Childs says that the sonar contact has reappeared. We are seeing strange currents.”
“We are next to the Trench, Alain,” I tell him, looking up at the immense creature above me. “We are upon it.”
Silence. Static. A moment later, I hear a hatch opening and the hiss of the torpedo in the water. I get up and move back to the submarine. My back to the Trench, I am sure that the dragon will have me, too, that it will see the furtive movements of the lone man on the sea bed as he attempts his escape. But no jaws descend for me! I reach the hull and walk along it, fully illuminated in the yellow light as the creature feeds on the morsels falling on it from above.
The torpedo blows. Even this far away, I can feel the compression of the water. It pushes me along the hull. I turn and gaze at the creature. The explosion has disturbed its feeding, and now its long neck arcs as its wings turn its body. The maw swings around until it is aimed at the submarine.
“Coming in!” I cry. “Anton, coming in!”
I reach the door as the light behind me grows. Water buffets me. I lose my footing, and begin to slip, but then I tug open the door and set myself against it, pulling myself into the chamber. The outer door slams shut and the light changes to green as Anton drops pressure. As the water in the chamber recedes, the submarines shakes under a force that I would never have thought possible.
“Get it off!” I cry at Anton, as he tries to remove the helmet. “Remove the suit, man! Quickly!”
For once, there is no glib reply. But as he helps me remove the balance of the suit, Anton grabs me by the arm. “What did you see out there, Captain? What is rocking the boat like this? It is like something is lifting us!” But all I can do is shake my head.
He lets me go, and I run to the bridge.