Short Story: Ode to Shadows

The ocean is an abyss, more desert than plain or forest teeming with life. The thought is a difficult one for humans to grasp when deserts have become synonymous with arid, barren, wastelands. The ocean is seemingly its antithesis, most would think. In truth, it is but one face of a two-sided coin. Humans have descended little more than six miles in one, lone spot, only to find emptiness, darkness. They have mapped little more than five-percent of this lifeless zone with primitive instruments put to shame by even their lesser-advanced, contemporary achievements.

What they have found (or rather, not) is nothing in comparison to what lies hidden in the deepest, unexplored recesses. In places where neither men nor beast can reach, there dwells a spark of existence known only as Shadows. They are unlike their surface counterparts in uncountably unimaginable ways. They’ve no physical bodies, not as a man could touch or feel; no eyes or ears, nor mouths with which to speak. Instead, they communicate with only thoughts projected between one another. Each Shadow is a floating consciousness with no more aim but to continue floating. Were any man or animal to stumble upon their confines, an intentional, psychic transmission would destroy them. It is not with malice nor anger, but merely an effect of Shadows’ extreme differences.

Had someone known this before NOAA sent down their prized research team, perhaps things would have gone differently. But once more humanity was slighted for their curiosity, blissful ignorance. In time, each researcher was subjected to that pulse of mental power, overwhelmed to death by it.

The team of six arrived at a previously undocumented area of sea-floor. Their mission was to map it and catalog its biome. In their specialized submarine– not unlike a ballistic missile design, but different entirely in its purpose– they laid anchor somewhere in the southern Atlantic. The trough they took residence in was three miles deep, enough to require mixtures of exotic gasses to replace oxygen. Those gases of helium and oxygen were necessary given the dangerous nature of Oxygen at such depths and pressures.

The first day of their two-week stay was uneventful, spent largely in configuring their diving gear to the intense pressure outside. By the second day acting leader of the team, Karen West, had ordered they make their first foray into the deep. Through a moon pool in a central compartment, they plunged into blackness without fear, unaware of what lay beyond their ship’s powerful lighting.

Split into pairs, one third was to head for a geothermal vent to the South. Another was to map the extent of the vent’s radiant heat to the North. It was, by way of deduction, in hopes of creating a mapped radius of a possible live-zone. Such is the sea’s nature that, as the desert’s inverse, heat is the life-giving force in the freezing depths. The final third of the group was to remain in range of the ship, collecting sediment samples to determine the anchorage area’s age and composition.

Instructed as they were, the pairs broke ranks and ventured forth in their enormous pressure-suits like over-inflated astronauts. Indeed, the aquanauts’ steps in the low gravity of the Ocean made the comparison all the more apt. Not even the strongest suits could protect them for what was to come.

It was Donald that first saw the shadows. Though the others wouldn’t come to know that until it was too late. He and his partner, in charge of mapping the radiant heat’s outermost reaches, came upon a Shadow without knowing it. They bounced between their feet in a low-G moonwalk, appeared as great, shuffling, tire-clad men with flood-lights atop their heads.

When something skirted the edge of a light, Donald pursued it. A moment later he was stopped dead. Pressure built in his suit. Screams sliced through his comm. It linked to his partner and the rest of the team. Before they could react, there was a shrieking crescendo. A loud, wet pop! Then, his suit toppled over, face-mask spattered with blood and brain in a viscous carnage.

Karen recalled everyone to the ship at-once. It wasn’t enough. As different as Shadows are, like man they shared an intrinsic trait; curiosity. Donald’s partner barely made to flee before he too screamed, silenced by another, wet pop! Karen and the others were already double-timing it to the ship, hoping its poly-alloy walls would protect them.

If only they’d known what they were up against, perhaps they wouldn’t have been so foolish. But how could they have? The only reason anything is known of their encounter is due to a real-time black-box system linked into their comms and embedded in the submarines controls. The black-box was near-indestructible, only discovered when the submarine’s scheduled rise came. Crew or not, the sub was fated to ascend.

When it appeared at the surface, there were only the vaguest of hints of what had gone wrong. After a quarantine period, its exterior was examined and found to be immaculate. Nothing more could be learned without boarding.

Scattered around the sealed, moon-pool doors, NOAA rescue crews in hazmat gear found their four researchers. Audio of a final, few minutes preceded dead-silent comms that lasted two-straight weeks. After the routine, first day, and the chilling events of Donald’s death, leader Karen and the others’ final moments were discovered.

A mixture of swears and cries bled through the comms. Debates about what might have happened, what to do now. Then, with an almost audible breath, a silence. A thump against the sub’s outer-hull gave way to a collective groan. Someone said something about a nose bleed to Karen. Another thump. Then, two more in succession. A crew-member’s screams terrified someone to tears– or perhaps it was the pain of the slow, further succession of thumps omnipresent against the hull.

Before long, little else was to be heard but cries and thumps. Sounds of four men and women dying grated investigators’ ears, whom listened to the thumps for five full minutes. Then came screams. Like Donald and his partner’s, that apexed in shrill cries.

Then, pop, pop, pop… pop!

The deaths were ruled an accident, but NOAA barred return to the site. If only they’d known the Shadows, like humans, were a global pandemic in the ocean’s deepest recesses, perhaps they’d have never again set foot on a ship. Instead, man continued on unawares. But such is the nature of his ignorance and fragility that he might be at death’s door one day, then sailing the high-seas unbidden the next. Alas, that matters not to the Shadows, for they are eternally patient, curious, and wait only to investigate with a wet, solemn, pop!