Something Deep: Part Two
A Subnautical Thriller
If you missed part one, click here to read it now.
He inspected her from across the room, his sharp-boned face impassive. His brown eyes made a long, slow journey from her brunette bob to her sensible black flats then jerked back up to her face.
He stared silently at her from behind oval lenses, waiting for her to speak.
He wants to make me uncomfortable with the silence, Amelia thought.
She didn’t take the bait, and she didn’t flinch under his gaze. Not outwardly. But her stomach fluttered like a thousand butterflies had been let loose inside her.
A smile quivered at the corner of his lip. He seemed pleased at her stoicism.
“Dr. Charles Hawkin,” he said, enunciating his own name carefully in a low but imperious voice. A voice accustomed to giving orders. “And I assume you are Amelia Gonzalez?”
Amelia nodded. “Reporting. I’m glad to finally meet you, Dr. Hawkin.”
The surreal nature of the moment hit Amelia hard. She was 5,000 meters under the ocean, talking to the lead scientist for one of the top energy research programs in the world. And she would be helping him with his work.
This is what you’ve wanted for six years, Amelia told herself. You’ve done months of research on this project already. Don’t get cold feet now.
She shifted, tugging at her blouse. Amelia had dressed as conservatively and as professionally as possible for this important moment. Plain black dress pants. A pale green button-down with a feminine frill at the cuffs. A simple belt with a silver clasp. But she felt underdressed compared to Dr. Hawkin, who wore a crisp, clean black suit under a white lab coat.
A fear suddenly pierced her heart, and she sniffed. Had her blouse picked up the dirty dishwater smell of that old coat from the elevator? But she didn’t smell soiled cloth. Instead, she wrinkled her nose slightly at the smell of a lemon-scented disinfectant that must have been used to clean Dr. Hawkin’s office.
“I hope you are prepared to get started right away,” Dr. Hawkin said. “We have a lot of work to do. Exciting work. Important work.”
“Of course, Dr. Hawkin.”
“You’ll settle into your quarters first. Obviously,” the doctor said, “we want you to feel at home here. Some people find it… unsettling, at first.”
Behind him, the water pressed against the building, pushing against the glass of a floor-to-ceiling window. Amelia looked over his shoulder at small flecks of light in the black of the ocean, glittering in the distance, like will o’ the wisps calling.
“I can see how it would be unsettling to some. But it’s also beautiful.” She paused. The Mariana Trench fascinated her in a way she didn’t fully understand. She had studied the area meticulously before she arrived, of course. But the view from the world-famous research lab was quite different from the grainy underwater photographs in her textbooks and online.
“If you don’t mind me asking, what are those lights out there?”
Outside, she heard footsteps passing in the hall. Laughter. Hushed voices. Was it her imagination or did the footsteps speed up when they passed Dr. Hawkin’s office door?
“There’s no sunlight down here, Amelia. Not this far down. Any light you see is our own.”
“Well, they’re nice,” she said simply. Then, realizing how inadequate it was, added: “Forgive me, but it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before. It’s fantastic. In the fairytale sense.”
“Fantastic. And terrifyingly powerful. That’s why we’re down here, Amelia. ”
He turned to the outer wall himself and looked out. “We’re like lion tamers, snapping our whips, asking the ocean to dance for us. Do you think we stand a chance?”
“I don’t think you’d be here if you didn’t think you did, Dr. Hawkin. So yes, I do.”
His shoulders hunched forward in an unexpected, deep laugh.
“Good answer. Now, let me show you your new workspace. We’ll see that before your quarters. You’ll spend far more time in the lab than in your bedroom. Hopefully, you can handle it.”
Amelia bristled at the jab but didn’t bother with a response. Instead, she followed Dr. Hawkin out into the hallway, feeling more confident. She had dealt with plenty of egos before. Academia was brimming with them.
Dr. Hawkin led her out of his small, soulless office, which contained only his desk, his chair, and a small table. There wasn’t a spot for a visitor to sit and the walls were blank, except for the wall that looked out into the cold, dark water.
She hoped her quarters were more cheerful, or could at least be made more cheerful.
The office door slid shut behind him and he punched a number into the door’s keypad. The keypad flashed twice--a bright red light--and beeped in response when he finished.
The Sea Lab entrance was around the corner to the right, but Dr. Hawkin led her left, deeper into the undersea building. Each door along the blue-tiled hallway had a name emblazoned on an oblong, copper-colored plaque about chest high. A doctor or scientist who had enough standing to occupy an office in this section of the base.
One of the doors was open, and Amelia glimpsed a shaggy blond head bent over a desk and a hand writing furiously across a large sheet of paper.
The sight thrilled her and the last of her nervousness bled away. She loved those moments of pure focus. The ecstasy of being on the trail of a discovery, of walking on the very edge and knowing you’re going places no one has gone before.
Near the end of the hall, she noticed a name she recognized on a door to her right. Dr. Sara Yamamoto. Dr. Yamamoto had provided help with Amelia’s thesis research and had recommended her for this position. Amelia had never met the esteemed scientist in person. But she had talked to her on the phone and exchanged many emails with her, and she had seemed nice enough. Nice enough to make Amelia feel a rush of warmth at the familiarity of her name in such a foreign place.
The doctor turned to the right again and stopped in front of a steel door.
A woman in jeans and a T-shirt passed them, giving Amelia a curious glance. She must have been older than Amelia by about ten years, by the looks of it, and she was lean but muscled, like she worked out often.
“How many people live down here?” Amelia asked. When studying up on Project DOR. and the Mariana Trench, she hadn’t really considered the social aspects of the Sea Lab. An obvious oversight on her part.
“Ninety-eight people in all. Not all of them are scientists, of course. We have cooks, maintenance crews, and cleaning staff. Gyms. Entertainment. It’s like our own little town, really.”
“I hope you aren’t the type who is bothered by the lack of nightlife down here.”
Amelia smiled. “I think I’ll be okay.”
“Good,” he replied humorously. “Our project requires absolute dedication.”
He tapped a code into the keypad on the door.
“87549,” he said, as he typed. “Remember that. Don’t write it down. It’s changed weekly.”
Amelia had undergone an extensive background check before she arrived, and her personal phone had been replaced with an official Sea Lab phone, pre-programmed with the contact information for all her close associates, including Dr. Hawkin and Dr. Yamamoto.
Security around the project had been tightened, she’d been informed, because of suspected leaks of information. She would need to keep everything she researched at the Sea Lab top secret. No mention of her daily duties, even to friends and family.
She had been afraid her younger sister, Emma, would be upset to learn that Amelia couldn’t share her work with her. Emma shared Amelia’s love of science and had been almost as excited as Amelia when she was asked to join Project DOR.
However, Emma had merely laughed.
“Like a spy!” Her younger sister had said.
And Amelia did feel a little bit like a spy. Mainly because the Sea Lab and everything surrounding it had a surreal air, like she was on the set of a movie.
The keypad flashed green and the door slid open, revealing a large room. Amelia stepped inside.
Waist-high counters lined the far wall. Every two feet or so above them, a small round window looked out into the black water. A few stray pieces of flexpaper lay on the counter next to a clipboard and pen. Dr. Hawkin’s brows lowered as his gaze fell on the remains of someone’s work.
“Pigs,” he spat.
Amelia heard a soft, low murmur from an interior room and a young man, close to her own age, came out of the sliding door holding a yellow folder. He jumped and almost dropped the folder when he saw Dr. Hawkin and Amelia standing in the lab.
He pulled purple earbuds out of his ears and dropped them into his pocket.
“Sorry, Dr. Hawkin,” he said in a light Irish accent. His face turned a pale shade of red. “I didn’t know you were working in the lab today.”
“I’m not,” Dr. Hawkin responded coldly. “I’m only introducing our new research assistant to her work area.”
“New meat?” The young scientist grinned at Amelia, his blue eyes lighting up. “Don’t worry. Our dirty sea cave isn’t so bad once you get used to it.”
Dr. Hawkin pointed at the flexpaper on the counter. “It wouldn’t be dirty if lazy layabouts like you didn’t leave your work lying around all the time. Everything is supposed to be put away if you’re not using it. And you’re not supposed to be using flex to record your findings.”
“I didn’t put it away because I was still using it. I was only in the other room,” the young man complained. “I needed this.”
He held up the yellow folder before tossing it on the counter.
“And Dr. Yamamoto said we should be backing up all our important findings on flex too in case of catastrophic failure. It’s waterproof.”
“You’re not supposed to be listening to music, Duncan!” Dr. Hawkin snarled. “How many times do you have to be written up before you start following lab procedures? They are put in place for the safety and security of our research!”
Duncan nodded. “Sure, Dr. Hawkin. Won’t happen again.”
Dr. Hawkin frowned and turned toward two small computers, which hummed quietly at separate workstations to Amelia’s left. Duncan winked at her behind Dr. Hawkin’s back, and Amelia smiled.
“These computers hold all the data that we have on Project DOR, Amelia. Your job will be to compile the data our hands-on researchers provide. To study it for patterns or red flags. You will write reports on any of your findings and you will provide the reports to either me or Dr. Yamamoto. We can afford nothing less than excellence.”
“As you know, we are studying the currents of the ocean, specifically how their movement can be harnessed to provide energy.” He turned to her and clasped his hands in front of him. “If you help us in accomplishing this feat, you will have advanced civilization as we know it. You will have changed the world. Our names could be in the history books.”
“Your name would be in the history books,” Amelia replied. “I’m only an assistant.”
“No, Amelia.” Dr. Hawkin shook his head. “You’re a scientist. And you have all the responsibilities of a scientist, so don’t forget it. Now… let’s get out of Duncan’s way so he can finish his work.”
He gestured toward a door opposite from the one they had entered. “Let’s go through the common room. I’ll show you the Research Lab and then your room.”
She gave Duncan a small wave and followed Dr. Hawkin out into the common room, an open area filled with chairs and tables for congregating, along with a ping-pong table and shelves full of extra maintenance equipment, which was arranged rather haphazardly. Amelia guessed Dr. Hawkin didn’t spend much time in the Common Room.
The variety of miscellaneous materials seemed out of place. Dr. Hawkin saw her staring at the shelf closest to her, which held multiple metal rods, lashed together with a large zip tie, buckets of screws in different sizes, several plastic boxes whose contents she couldn’t see, and - oddly - her favorite board game, Ants & Logs.
“Ignore the mess. It’s tolerated out here because people need somewhere to relax. At least, according to Dr. Yamamoto, they do.”
A woman dressed in dark jeans and a gray T-shirt sat at a table nearby, reading on her tablet while sipping a pale brown coffee. Discarded sugar packets lay crumpled on the table in front of her.
Two men lounged on a couch on the other side of the room, watching a screen built into the wall. The screen displayed a full-lipped blonde woman, who was talking animatedly to the middle-aged man on the right. Her hair bobbed as she talked excitedly. Amelia couldn’t hear what she said, but the man seemed happy enough with it. He laughed and rocked forward, slapping his knee.
“You are free to relax here, as you wish,” Dr. Hawkin said lazily. He gestured at the screen, “You can make video calls here, if you wish. This signal is stronger out here than the signal you’ll get in your room, so it’ll be better quality. Video calls on our personal devices can sometimes be choppy or can get interrupted, making conversations difficult.”
“Oh, I didn’t realize that was an issue.”
He gave her a toothy smile. “You’ll find that privacy at Sea Lab is hard to come by.”
“So people just talk with their loved ones out here, in front of everyone?”
“Sometimes, yes. We are all a family at Sea Lab, Amelia. We don’t have many secrets. At least, not from each other.”
He led her across the large room and opened the door to another lab. This one was busy with activity and movement.
“We won’t go in. They’re running a test just now. But this is the Research Lab. The experiments they run in here create a large part of the data you’ll be working on in your area.”
“Makes sense,” Amelia said, peering at a woman with a messy brown bun and intense dark eyes. She wore a white coat and VR goggles and held a tablet in one hand and some sort of measuring instrument in the other.
She saw Amelia watching her and nodded in her direction.
Amelia smiled and nodded back at her. The woman returned to her work, setting the instrument down to type quickly on the tablet’s touchpad.
Dr. Hawkin ushered her out of the doorway and closed the door.
“We don’t want to distract them while they’re working.”
“I’ll show you to your room and you can get unpacked,” he said, walking quickly toward a hallway on the southern side of the Common Room. He twitched his sleeve aside and glanced at his watch. “I have a meeting in 15 minutes, so I really can’t spend too much time on this.”
The blonde woman on the screen had disappeared now, replaced by a soccer game, and two others had joined the men on the couch.
“You’re in 314,” Dr. Hawkin said, leading her into the dorm area. “You’ll find reading materials on the desk in your room. You can spend the rest of today reading up on the project and our discoveries so far.”
He paused in front of her dorm room door.
“I’d also spend some time exploring the rest of Sea Lab. The cafeteria is on the floor below us. That’s where you’ll take your meals if you get hungry.”
“The key code for your room is 8732. I’ll leave you here.” He turned and walked away at a fast clip, glancing at his watch again.
Amelia waited for him to disappear around the corner before turning her attention to the keypad. She punched in the number and it flashed green. She turned the door handle.
Not exactly homey, she thought, her eyes roving over the pale gray walls and simple furnishings. Her metal bed frame and thin mattress wouldn’t have looked out of place in a prison. Next to the bed, a chest of drawers doubled as a bedside table.
Amelia ventured inside and turned on the small lamp on the desk in the corner. It added a bit of warm light to the room. A definite improvement.
Her bags had been left in a pile by the desk. She hadn’t brought much with her. She hadn’t been allowed to. But she had a few comforting items to remind her of home packed away. Once she’d brought them out, the space wouldn’t seem so grim, she assured herself, and she grabbed the top bag by the handles and hefted it onto the bed.
She started to unzip it and stopped to stare at a curtain on the far wall. To the right of her bed.
“Surely not?” she said aloud, approaching the plain white curtain with a certain amount of caution. Part of her expected to open it to see blue skies and green, suburban grass. Instead, when she pushed aside the white cloth, she was greeted with a porthole that showed the same empty blackness she’s seen in Dr. Hawkin’s office. Empty black dotted with pale lights, some of them close enough for her to see rocks on a sandy ocean floor.
Blinking out at the unbelievable sight, she pressed her nose against thick glass, one hand on the wall. The glass chilled her skin. Cold and unforgiving. The only barrier between Amelia and the bottom of the ocean.
Her mind wandered up toward the surface, meandering through meters of dark water. Dark water and nothing else. The water felt… heavy. The weight of it seemed to press in on her again. Against the entire Sea Lab. A shiver raised goosebumps on her arms and she stepped away from the window, covering it quickly with the small curtain.
She stood for a moment, trying to forget the terror that had coursed through her, like electricity racing through her nerves. Trying to forget seemed to make it worse, though. Instead, she had the feeling she was imprinting it somewhere in her mind.
Shaking her head, she returned to the bed, unzipped her bag, and began to remove her carefully packed clothes in slow motion, folding each piece thoughtfully before placing it in the dresser drawer.
How strange, she thought, to stand at the beginning of the greatest adventure of my life and feel as though I’ve died.
Co-written with Harold J. Petty