Another short story -The Depth

This was literally a nightmare I had; tried to make a story out of it.

 

1.

The AT15A banked steeply towards the surface. The dark, cold water pressed around the small submersible; the pilot, Capt. Kendon Mkell opened a small pouch of caffeine. The patrol route was nearing to the furthest point of the ocean he was supposed to check before turning back, and he was tired. This run was one of those half-day exercises of boredom, but he tried to keep alert; he was fully aware that things could change any time. Routine and boredom was the worst enemy of any soldier; when things go south, as they invariably do, he did not want to be caught with his pants down. Everything conspired to make him drowsy: the muted lights in the cockpit, the murmuring noise of the propulsion system, the featureless darkness outside of the viewport… he needed the boost. The sensory array was on a passive mode, only receiving; the turbines were quietly pushing out water without generating much noise that any enemy craft would be able to pick up. He was quite certain nobody was around in a thirty kilometer region, but even if the RTT had any watercraft around, he should be safe from a first-strike from distance. It was really hard to pinpoint the source of the noise these waterjet engines made; the whooshing sound was very diffuse on most instruments and sonars. The enemy would have to be really close to make an accurate measurement; so close, in fact, his own instruments would give him warning about any metallic objects larger than a beer can in that range.

 

He skirted around the sunken wreck of the NSS Liberty. The gigantic warship was floating submerged in the ocean; a causality of the war raging over and under the Pacific Ocean. Kendon switched the sensors into active mode; the low pulses of the sonar made his inner ears itch. The screen was really noisy due to the small floating objects around the wreck. Pieces of the ship, equipment, dead bodies all congregated around the gigantic dead craft. The submersible was an interesting amalgam of an aircraft and a submarine; unlike most of the submarines of old it resembled a fat little airplane that had a manta ray somewhere in its family tree. The blunt nose housed the cockpit with an actual viewing port -a luxury in submarines. The short wings were round and deltoid, and the engine nacelles were hanging from the mid section of the ship. It looked like it could fly; in reality it was modelled on aircraft and rays. The cockpit’s viewing port was relatively large; it served a very useful purpose since in the very short range dogfights these crafts engaged in normally, visual clues were essential for the pilot. There was no time for the traditional slow cat and mouse hiding games submarines of old usually played. This was a vicious, fast and brutal way of waging a war underwater, which resembled the Second World War dogfights more than anything else. Since the ocean was a complex web of currents and thermal layers, it was an incredibly difficult and complex battlefield. Small crafts like his could hide from sensor scans by crossing into another thermal layer or current; the scans would not be able to penetrate the boundaries of these layers. One minute your target could be right in front of you on your instruments, the next it could disappear by diving into an oceanic current, only to emerge behind you. On territorial waters sonar buoys were used to monitor the ocean to a considerable depth, but on contested waters this was not possible; these were the dangerous regions where entire enemy formations could lurk under your craft without you ever realizing it.

 

Mkell watched as the faint glow from above illuminated the floating debris around his craft. Visibility was -as usual- very low; he only saw objects rushing towards him when they got to four-five meters to the viewport. He was forced to engage the active sonar since he ran the very real risk of running into something he does not see; he still jumped when a dead body slammed against his cockpit window. The dark waters robbed the colors from the corpse rendering it a monochrome spectre. Most of the body was still intact and the uniform perfectly recognisable, despite of having spent weeks in the freezing water. The fish did not yet get around to eat the corpses; something in the water released by the dead ship kept them away. Kendon shook his head, and tried to calm down. He kept telling himself that the collision with the dead seaman only exacerbated the effects on his heartrate of the caffeine he just consumed but with very little success. He gently steered around larger pieces of floating debris, checking the vicinity of the wreck. This was the largest object around several hundred kilometers; perfect hiding place for any enemy craft.

 

Suddenly an active signal- something live, something energized among the dead debris. Something that was under power; something that had no business to be there. The sensors locked onto the object; a flick of a finger, and the armament came to life. A feral grin spread on his face. “Gotcha”, he murmured. The HUD (head up display) put a red diamond over a small fleck – the enemy craft. Now he had a visual point of reference, too. The sensors narrowed its scan range automatically to get a more accurate reading. Another second and the turbines went full power as well; the small, blunt nosed craft jumped ahead in the water. Mkoll felt his heartbeat in his ears again; the hunt was on.

 

The enemy craft- after all, what else it could have been- powered up as well, forking around the debris littering the area. The AT15A rushed after it. A small canister detached itself from its back and headed to the surface. Since radios do not work underwater, this small transmitter was needed on the surface to alert the HQ of the intruder with all the data the patrol craft managed to record. In a short amount of time this region would be swarming with allied watercraft and aircraft. Until then it was up to the patrol to deal with the threat. The two small crafts pushed themselves fast in the water; cavitation bubbles were trailing from their wingtips and the waterjets. The previous drone was now replaced the roaring of the fully functioning propulsion system. The serenity of the cockpit was transformed by warning sounds and other noises of a warcraft in full readiness. Mkoll came near the enormous hull of the Liberty. The proximity warning was beeping as the black metal surface rushed under his craft. He swooped over the gigantic, copper colored screw and under the rudder, down into the inky black depth.

 

The enemy craft kept going further down, rushing towards the ocean bottom almost six kilometers deep; of course both crafts would be destroyed by the pressure before approaching even a fraction of that depth. Mkoll doggedly followed the ship. The rules of engagement allowed for certain amount of risk in chasing enemy infiltrators, but the object was to chase them off, and not necessarily destroy them. Any foolhardy chase would only jeopardise the area’s security. Mkoll only had about three more kilometers to destroy the submarine; after that he would have to return to the patrol area, secure it, and wait for the reinforcements to arrive. He intended to do his damned best not to let the enemy escape.

 

Hundred meters down. The enemy was approaching a thermal barrier; the sonar returns clearly indicated the boundary between the two thermal layers, and overlaid it onto his HUD. “No you don’t” he said, as he watched the enemy craft approaching this invisible layer; he let two fish off, and went into a steeper dive. The fish -the torpedos- were sleek, ultra-fast missiles that could achieve an incredible hundred and fifty kilometers per hour under water, but at the cost of being loud as hell; a sure way to alert to the enemy of the approaching doom. A bright white flash answered his attack as the enemy craft released a combined flair. The device scrambled visual, heat seeking and sonar-guided ordnance; however it illuminated quite a large portion of the ocean around it. Mkoll caught his first actual glimpse of the fleeting enemy: a small craft, not unlike his own. Probably an infiltrator gathering information. The craft was now invisible to his instruments as it was already below the thermal boundary, but he could see it quite clearly.

 

Before entering the layer he turned his craft to passive mode, and slowed down considerably; this way he would sink into the thermal layer undetected; he hoped his prey was still going full power, which would make passive tracking possible, while making him invisible to his prey. He gently eased the submersible into the lower thermal layer.

There was no sign of the enemy; his instruments picked up nothing. It was possible his prey went passive as well, but Mkell doubted it. Something was off. He felt tempted to go active again, and ping the area with a sensor sweep, but he knew he needed to be patient. He increased his altitude, to get back into the top layer, but nothing; he turned his craft down again. No sign of the intruder. He slowly increased the throttle, reaching cruising speed, when suddenly his craft slowed down and stopped. One of the waterjets cut off, and then silence.

2.

His first reaction was annoyance; he thought it was a mechanical failure. A quick check on the instruments showed everything in the green- the craft was fully functional. The number one jet cut off because of obstruction; the second one worked, but the craft still slowed down to a standstill. He tried to restart the stalled engine, but it refused. When increased the output on the second one, the craft shuddered violently, and then stopped completely; the second engine cut out as well. Mkoll sat back; the annoyance gave way to stupor and then worry. “What the… what is going on with you, old girl?” asked his craft. He tried to override the engine safety controls to get them going again, and in the furor of activity he almost missed the jolt. Something started to pull his craft. Something was pulling it downwards.

 

He quickly released a second transmitter, and then frantically started to work on the engine restart procedures. Nothing. The craft- even though it was undamaged and fully functional- did not respond to anything he did. It became clear: he had to get out of his doomed craft. There was nothing he could make out, something WAS pulling it down. He could not even begin to think of anything that was capable of grabbing and immobilizing an AT15, but his imagination filled the blanks out very well. He pulled the ejection handle, which would have released his cabin from the frame of the submersible, but nothing happened. The small, explosive bolts separated, but the craft was held together by something.  He started to get jittery; something unexplained was going on, and he was a hundred and fifty meters under the ocean surface. He knew the enemy craft was inconsequential now; something much worse was happening to him than the dangers of a dogfight. He tried the sonar, but the ping returned nothing. He turned all the floodlights on so that he could look around the vicinity of his craft, but most of them were simply blocked. Blocked by what? There was hardly any light escaping. He tried to launch a couple of fish from the two torpedo tubes, but the torpedo bay doors were blocked. He did not expect the warheads to do anything anyway, since they needed clearance from the submarine before they were armed. Still; it was impossible even to launch them. Something held his craft in its grips, and it was dragging it towards the abyssal plains below…

 

3.

He knew he needed to escape before he got too deep, and was crashed under the immense pressure. Something gripped the ship, so he needs to evacuate. And do it without getting caught himself… He got out of his command chair, and started to frantically get his suit fixed up. He wore a survival suit for the mission; now he was attaching the gloves and the bottom ring of the protective helmet to the rubberised, insulated suit, and the rebreather apparatus on his chest. He needed to get out. He was afraid of the dark outside, but staying here would be death. In the near absolute icy blackness he had to leave his little piece of warm protection, and find the way to the surface while some unknown horror kept his craft in its clutch. He was shaking; five years of vicious combat did not prepare him for this. The thought of leaving the craft wanted him to just stay and wait for the end; about two kilometers down the outer shell would fail catastrophically, killing him instantly. This fate compared to the long swim to the top with the invisible threat behind looked better and better the longer he stayed and thought about the escape. He knew he had to move soon, or he’ll be unable to do anything at all. Once most of his gear was on, he opened the compartment for the flairs, and took three out. With a tape he fixed them together, and connected them to each other through the detonator heads. His hands were trembling as if he was deathly cold, and could fit the wires into their slots only with difficulty. The flares were set to detonate manually now. He clasped the helmet on, made sure the seal was engaged, and pressed the emergency flooding button. The cabin slowly filled up as the invisible force tugged on the submarine; dirt, papers and discarded food wrappers  swirled around his torso. His mouth was dry, and it was really difficult to keep his breathing regular… but he could not do anything until the compartment was fully flooded. The cold started to engulf him, and his whole body was shaking. He tried to see something, anything in the dark outside, but nothing came. He thought of the enemy craft; it was possible it met a very similar fate. He wondered about the pilot, and what he was doing; suddenly the thought of fighting another human being under these waters seemed foolish indeed.

The cockpit took two minutes to fill completely; it felt like an eternity to him. He slid the jury-rigged flair back into its compartment, and grabbed the trigger wire; once the cabin side hatch closed, he pressed the emergency button, which flushed the flare out into the water. He tried to calm his nerves, and get himself composed enough to start the escape, when two faint lights appeared in the cockpit window. He did not know how far they were, or what they were really; his imagination, however ran absolutely wild. He saw two huge, fluorescing eyes staring inside his cockpit, and screamed.  

 

4.

Kendon pressed his eyes shut and pushed the button.The flares went off with a cold-white flash outside the small submarine, and ignited the other flare rods as well. He blindly stumbled to the back of the cockpit, and opened the small hatch on the back of the AT15. The pressure was enormous, and he felt clumsy and sick with fear. With his eyes still closed he released the emergency balloon, and pushed himself out. Even through his closed eyes he was almost blinded by the light. He felt around with his hands until he found the wire of the balloon, and kicked himself away from the submarine. Following the line he started swimming with an undulating movement towards the surface. His heart was pounding in his ears and his throat; he did not open his eyes. He felt the six kilometers of depth under him; he felt the uncharted, cyclopean mountains, and the horrors lurking between them. He did not dare to open his eyes; just kept swimming following the life-line of the balloon to the surface. He expected something enormous to grab his legs at any second to drag him down to the deep, inky blackness below. The surface was about three hundred meters above… three hundred of torturous meters trying to reach the surface, the air, the world outside. He took as shallow breaths as possible in order to minimalize the noise from the rebreather apparatus. The cold water pressed against his skin; despite of the insulating fabric of his suit he felt the deadly chill setting in his body. With the pounding in his ears he risked a quick glance to the side. The water below him was flat, pale blue as the flares were burning with an angry white light below him; above the absolute blackness. He saw the shadow of his submersible, but he shut his eyes again in terror before he could see what held his watercraft in its grabs. His mind was screaming in panic, and all he could do was to swim and not to succumb to it. He knew that if he saw what captured him with his submarine, his mind would give up, he would lose his grip on reality, and he would die there, in the hostile, icy depth. He bit on the mouthpiece hard and kept swimming to the surface in the ice-cold black water while the hot tears were running down his face.

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