Something Deep: Part Seven

A tense conversation

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Part Seven

Amelia stared at Issac’s last words for a long time, tracing the dry ink with her finger. Had Issac gotten his message to the UN? Had he informed them of Dr. Hawkin’s plans?

No. He must have died first, Amelia thought. The accident must have happened before he could relay his message. If it was an accident…

Amelia shivered. Issac’s words chilled her to the bone. 

Even now, while I’m writing these words, I feel him.

Had the doctor been watching? Had he been listening to Issac in his room, talking to his friends and family? 

There had been no sign of a bug or a camera in her cleaning or her search for a hiding place. 

Still… technology could be nearly invisible. 

Amelia closed the diary and grabbed her own journal off the floor. Then she shimmied back under the bed and restored Issac’s notes to their resting place. She added her journal to the hidden space slowly… hesitating before sealing it up. 

By putting her words with Issac’s, could she be aligning her fate with his? 

What really happened to him?

Amelia didn’t study that night, even though she should have been continuing her research on the project. Instead, she opened the curtains to her small window, turned out all the lights in her room, and curled up on her bed, staring out into the black of the ocean.

In the dark, Dr. Hawkin couldn’t see her. As long as she was silent, he couldn’t hear her. She could lose herself in the depths of the water and pretend to be an astronaut, floating in deep space. Looking down on the earth and its countries as one looks at a map, as though each plot of land doesn’t represent billions of lives. And ideas. And hopes. And fears. And worries.

For a while, Amelia felt truly alone… but she wasn’t. World-renowned scientists worked in labs around her. Dedicated researchers from countries all over the world slept in beds just like hers, in rooms up and down the hall. Her mentor, the esteemed Dr. Yamamoto, was probably still bent over her desk in her office, studying data readings from a sea walk the previous day.

Dr. Yamamoto often worked late, Amelia had been told. A night owl. 

Though, to Amelia, night and day didn’t exist in Sea Lab. With no sun, daytime isn’t real. With no moon, nighttime is a fiction.

The never-changing dark wasn’t night - but eternity.

***

An alarm jingled in her ear. She woke groggily, rubbing her eyes.

“Alarm off,” she mumbled, pushing the blanket aside. 

Sleep hadn’t come easily. But it had come eventually.

Rolling out of bed, she thought briefly of Issac and what his mornings had brought. His words conjured - to her -  the image of an eager, ambitious young man. A man set on proving himself, who would leave his dorm with vigor each day, ready to take on the world.

He was bold, Amelia thought, pulling a clean T-shirt over her head. Too bold. And he ended up dead. 

I’ll be more careful.

After her morning rituals, she practiced her first interaction with Dr. Hawkin several times in the mirror of her bathroom. 

“Good morning, Dr. Hawkin. Any new projects for me?” she said, studying her reflection for any signs of distress.

A tic at the left corner of her upturned lips betrayed her anxiety.

She gave it another go. 

“Good morning, Dr. Hawkin. What will I be working on today?”

Better.

“Good morning, Dr. Hawkin. What do you have for me today?”

No tic. No anxiety in her voice. Believable. Maybe she’d learned more in that school play in the 9th grade than she’d thought. Anxiety had always been a part of her life, especially when it came to social situations, but she had begun pursuing acting in 9th grade, mainly to please her parents. They had wanted her to show more interest in after-school activities. Something besides science, her mom had said, where we can cheer you on. 

Amelia had chosen acting and performed in the school play, Romeo & Juliet. She had played Juliet's nurse. How long ago that seemed now.

With some difficulty, she brought herself back to the present and left her room, headed toward the lab.

Sea Lab was already busy. Scientists and researchers, as well as administrative staff, buzzed by juggling coffee cups and to-go breakfast plates from the cafeteria as Amelia passed through the Common Area. 

The normalcy of the scene calmed her nerves a little. Maybe she was overreacting? Imagining things. She had been warned during her physical prior to her arrival that being in such a confined, isolated space could cause psychological issues.

Amelia shook the idea off. She wasn’t imagining Issac’s notes or the fact that he had died. 

She skirted a group of young researchers, gossiping in the corridor in hushed tones, and tapped out the keypad password on the door to the lab. 

The door slid open. 

Dr. Hawkin stood with his back to her, typing intently on the computer on the far side of the room. No one else was in the lab.

Amelia hesitated for a moment then plastered on the face she had practiced in the mirror and stepped inside. The door hushed closed behind her.

If Dr. Hawkin heard her enter the lab, he ignored her. In fact, he bent closer to the computer screen, as though nothing else in the world mattered more than what was in front of him.

“Good morning, Dr. Hawkin,” Amelia said. “What do you have for me today?”

Dr. Hawkin grunted and held up a hand, not bothering to turn around.

“14, 12, 24.5,” his typing slowed as he read a few numbers aloud then continued with intensity until he came to a full stop about 30 seconds later.

He flexed his fingers and sighed deeply, apparently satisfied with his findings, before turning to Amelia. 

“I have some handwritten notes on new data sets that need to be entered into Sea Lab’s software,” he said. “They’re waiting for you at your computer. The numbers on the new tests also need to be analyzed. The numbers should match up with - or at least be close to - the data sets from the last run of this test. Compare the numbers. If anything’s off, let me know.”

Amelia nodded. “Thanks. I’ll get to work right away.”

She settled into the chair in front of the computer, which fortunately placed her and Dr. Hawkin on opposite sides of the room - and booted up the device.

Once at work on the numbers, she tried to concentrate, but her thoughts kept wandering back to Issac. Issac had probably sat in this exact seat, he’d slept in the same bed she had slept in. He’d done the same grunt work for Dr. Hawkin… and a little extra work of his own.

She had to know more about him. But who could she ask? She resolved to visit Dr. Yamamoto again after she finished with Dr. Hawkin’s data. Dr. Yamamoto would know at least a little bit about her predecessor… and his relationship with Dr. Hawkin.

So far, she really only had Issac’s point of view. And she knew that wasn’t enough data to go on.

It took her longer than it usually would to parse through the data Dr. Hawkin had assigned her. It wasn’t as easy as the doctor had made it sound. The models had a certain variance that meant she had to run fresh calculations for each data set.

He never said a word to her after those first instructions, but she could hear his long fingers typing smoothly and efficiently behind her while she worked. And then occasionally, she couldn’t, and the long pause, when she didn’t know what he was doing, disturbed her more than the typing.

In the silence, the minutes seemed to stretch into hours. The data swarmed before her eyes, the numbers blending together. She was so distracted, she had to re-check her work multiple times to make sure she hadn’t made any mistakes.

She hoped Dr. Hawkin hadn’t noticed. He was so insular, it was difficult to ascertain what made it through his shell. But observations were his job. How insular can you really be as a scientist? And how much of his aloofness was a show?

Finally, her task finished, she hit the power button on the computer and watched the screen go blank. 

“Finished?” Dr. Hawkin asked when she stood up. 

“Yes, with that project.”

“And where are you off to now?”

The question prickled at Amelia. She struggled to maintain a neutral expression as she walked toward the door.

“To ask Dr. Yamamoto a few questions,” Amelia replied. “She said if I needed any help, I should visit her in her office.”

“Commendable.” Dr. Hawkin bent over his tablet, turned his head to peer at her, smiling widely. A Cheshire cat grin. “You’re very dedicated, Amelia. A very bright young researcher.”

“I try to be.” 

Dr. Hawkin watched her for a long minute before turning back to his tablet screen. “Don’t push yourself too hard… It’s not pretty what happens to young researchers when they push themselves too hard.”

“Like Issac?” The response slipped out before she could stop it.

Dr. Hawkin didn’t seem surprised. 

“Yes, like Issac. When we push ourselves too hard, we make mistakes.”

“Is that what happened? He made a mistake because he pushed himself too hard? And he died?”

“It’s a dangerous job, Amelia. You were warned before you signed up for it. This kind of work requires absolute dedication. When you work on Project DOR, Sea Lab is your life.”

Amelia frowned but didn’t respond.

“Issac was too ambitious, Amelia. Too eager to make a name for himself.” Dr. Hawkin set his tablet down and put his hands in the pockets of his lab coat. “He took unnecessary risks. Don’t let gossip get to you. I assure you, there’s plenty of gossip at Sea Lab. Getting wrapped up in it is only a distraction.”

“I’ll do my best to keep my mind on my work, Dr. Hawkin,” she replied. “And I’ll try to make any mistakes.”

“That’s all we ask,” he said with a slight smile. “Now, go and ask Dr. Yamamoto your questions. She’s one of the great researchers of the world. You should lap up every scrap of knowledge she tosses to you.”

Amelia left before he could wrap her in further conversation.

She shouldn’t have mentioned Issac. That was dangerous. But everyone at Sea Lab knew about Issac’s death. She knew about it before she even found his journal… and the knowledge that she had replaced a dead colleague - it gave her shivers. 

She made her way toward Dr. Yamamoto’s office, wondering what questions would even be appropriate. 

Pausing in the hallway outside her mentor’s office, she rubbed her temples gently.

Could I be overreacting?

She had expected working at Sea Lab to be a challenge. She had known the research data would be complex and the very nature of living at the bottom of the ocean heralded danger. But she had never foreseen a problem like Dr. Hawkin.

A headache had begun to form behind her eyes. And she was almost afraid to talk to Dr. Yamamoto about Issac. Did she really want to know more about the promising young scientist she had replaced? 

“Amelia? Are you okay?”

Amelia’s gaze had dropped to the floor, and she looked up to find Dr. Yamamoto in front of her, several file folders clasped to her chest. “Why don’t you come into my office? I just finished a meeting.”

Amelia nodded. “Thanks, Dr. Yamamoto. I actually came to see you.”

The scientist’s meeting must have been important. She wore a blue A-line skirt with a white button-down blouse and pumps. More business than science.

Dr. Yamamoto smiled when she noticed Amelia’s eyeing her outfit. She set the folders on a bookcase behind her desk and sat down.

“It was an interview with an independent media group, unaffiliated with the UN. You’ll find our work garners quite a bit of attention from the press. Space used to be the unexplored frontier… now it’s the bottom of the ocean. And we’re the pioneers.”

“So you do interviews a lot?”

“I wouldn’t say a lot. But occasionally, yes. Dr. Hawkin does as well. It’s a part of the job. We work for the good of humanity, Amelia. We work for the public. And the public has a right to know what we’re accomplishing… and sometimes not accomplishing.”

Amelia hesitated, unsure if she should ask the question she wanted to ask. 

“What is it, Amelia?” Dr. Yamamoto straightened the neck of her blouse with one hand and settled deeper into her office chair. She hadn’t asked Amelia to call her “Sara” again. And she hadn’t mentioned the fact that Amelia still addressed her formally.

“Was there much press involved when Issac died? Did the public find out about that?”

Dr. Yamamoto didn’t answer quickly. Instead, she studied Amelia’s face until Amelia began to feel herself blushing.

“You have to understand, Amelia, that we all liked Issac very much.” The scientist pressed her lips together and paused. She seemed to be choosing each word carefully. “He was dedicated. Hard-working. Smart. One of the brightest young scientists I’ve met in a very long time… You remind me a lot of him.”

Amelia knew Dr. Yamamoto meant it as a compliment, but the words hit her in the gut, causing her near physical pain. 

“No one told me I’d be replacing him,” Amelia said quietly. “When I accepted the position, I didn’t know about him.” 

Amelia swallowed down the emotions that had begun to rise in her throat. “If Issac hadn’t died, I wouldn’t be here.”

 “That’s not true, Amelia. You’re here because you do excellent work. You performed well at school. You sought me out when you were working on your thesis. You showed the initiative and drive necessary to succeed at Sea Lab. And you showed a desire to help humanity progress.”

“I sleep in the same bed he slept in. I work in the same lab he worked in.”

“It’s true that there are parallels between you and Issac, Amelia,” frustration tinged Dr. Yamamoto’s voice. “Your similarities are what brought you both to Sea Lab. Did you know Issac won the Trembley Prize for Scientific Achievement when he was sixteen?”

“No.” Amelia’s voice barely registered. She had won the same prize at eighteen. The Trembley Prize was named after Marianne Trembley, a scientist who developed a cure for several types of cancers in the 2030s. It was awarded once a year to a promising young scientist. Amelia had been recognized with the prize due to a high school research paper on potential future uses for thermal energy. She hadn’t even known her teacher had submitted it for consideration, and she had cried when she received the call. 

“Did you know I won the Trembley Prize for Scientific Achievement Prize when I was Issac’s age?” Dr. Yamamato asked, smiling softly. “I was already deep in research and experiments at sixteen.”

“No,” Amelia said again. “I had no idea.”

“Those of us who work at Sea Lab share specific traits, Amelia. We’re driven. We’re curious. We’re eager to learn and grow and share our knowledge with the world. Of course, you share similarities with Issac. You also share similarities with me. Even with Dr. Hawkin.”

Dr. Yamamoto shook her head when Amelia flinched at Dr. Hawkin’s name.

“What you have to understand is that sometimes the same ambition and curiosity that drives us to make discoveries that move humanity forward also makes us a bit difficult to get along with as colleagues.”

“I understand,” Amelia replied. “I knew Sea Lab would be a competitive work environment.”

“It is competitive, Amelia. And stressful at times.” Dr. Yamamoto leaned back, crossing her arms across her chest. “We all handle stress differently. We do have counselors on staff that you can talk to if you’re finding adjusting to Sea Lab difficult.”

“No, I know there are counselors available. I don’t need that sort of help. I guess it just upset me that Issac…”

Amelia didn’t finish the sentence. What had upset her was Issac’s journal. And she hadn’t told Dr. Yamamoto she’d found it in her room. She hadn’t told anyone. She wasn't sure she should. 

“I did come for help with my work as well,” Amelia said, eager to change the subject. Dr. Yamamoto simply didn’t understand her concerns. And how could she? She didn’t know the full story. “I just have a few questions for you about the data.” 

Amelia spent another hour in Dr. Yamamoto’s office, going over data sets and research notes, asking the whys and hows that she dared not ask Dr. Hawkin.

Dr. Yamamoto seemed impressed with her queries. Impressed enough to pat her on the shoulder when she walked her to the door of her office once they’d finished. 

“You’re going to do well here at Sea Lab, Amelia. Just concentrate on your work and everything else will fall into place.”

“I will, Dr. Yamamoto,” Amelia said. And she wanted to. She didn’t want to challenge Dr. Hawkin. She wished she could forget all about Issac’s journal. But she wasn’t sure it was possible.

***

Amelia loaded her plate with yakitori, rice, and beans before looking for a quiet table in the cafeteria. But on her way to an empty 2-seater near the back of the wide room, a familiar face intercepted her. Duncan, the young Irishman who sometimes worked in the data lab, grinned at her.

“Come sit at the fun table with us, Amelia,” he said. He carried a plate of chocolate-iced yellow cake. “Meet some of the other researchers. Have a laugh.”

Amelia didn’t really feel like laughing, but she also didn’t want to be rude. And Duncan truly seemed eager to have her join their table. The other researchers spent a lot of social time together, and Amelia had largely kept to herself since she arrived.

“You know what they say about all work and no play,” Duncan winked at her.

“Okay,” Amelia agreed. She wasn’t sure she was in the mood for small talk. But it could also help her take her mind off all the confusing thoughts swimming through her brain.

Duncan led her to a long table in the middle of the cafeteria. A young man and a young woman already sat at the table, eating their evening meals. 

Duncan slid into the seat next to the young woman, a pretty brunette with large hazel eyes and a coffee-colored complexion. She wore a bright, multi-colored top and had a flimsy pink scarf tied loosely around her neck.

“Everyone, meet Amelia,” Duncan said. He waved one hand at her and picked up his fork with the other. “We met in the lab not too long ago. She’s new to Sea Lab.”

The two others turned in her direction and smiled, gesturing for her to sit down. She took a seat next to the young man. He had piercing blue eyes and glasses and introduced himself as Anthony. 

“We were just talking about how exciting it is that we’re making so much progress down here,” Anthony said, taking a bite out of a sandwich layered thickly with slices of Delio. “From what Dr. Hawkin says, we are really closing in on something huge.”

“Seems like it,” Amelia said. Dr. Yamamoto’s warnings about the importance of Sea Lab’s work came back to her and she paused, staring down at her plate. 

“I’m Ana. Ana Santos.” The young woman next to Duncan grinned at her. “You’re Dr. Yamamoto’s new mentee, aren’t you? You replaced Issac?”

Amelia flinched and looked up, nodding. “Yes, I guess I did.”

“Oh,” the young woman seemed to realize she had said something out of bounds. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean… Sea Lab really isn’t that dangerous if you pay attention to procedures. The procedures are there for a reason.” 

Ana smiled and kicked Duncan under the table. He winced. 

“You should learn that lesson yourself, Duncan,” she said. “You’re far too flippant with safety rules.”

“Is that what happened with Issac?” Amelia asked suddenly before Duncan could respond. “He was too flippant with the rules and it got him killed?”

An awkward silence fell over the table. 

Ana shook her head, sipped from her cup, and swallowed. “We were all really upset about Issac, you know? We’re not heartless. But he wasn’t exactly friendly to us. So we’re not really sure what was going through his head.”

“We didn’t know him well.” Duncan agreed, glancing at her as took a large bite of cake. “He was really focused on his work. Didn’t like to socialize.”

Duncan mumbled the last words as he chewed, wiping at his mouth with a napkin.

“Issac spent a lot of time with Dr. Hawkin,” Anthony said. “Or alone. Glad you’re not the same.”

Duncan swallowed the cake and tapped his fork thoughtfully against his plate. 

“You know what I think it was? I think he saw us as competition,” he said. “But we’re just here to learn… and to add what we can to Sea Lab’s mission. We’re not the cutthroat types. At least, most of us aren’t.”

“Anyway,” Ana interrupted, “don’t worry about what happened. Don’t get caught up in the rumors.”

“What rumors?” Dr. Hawkin had mentioned rumors as well.

“I mean, when someone dies on the job, there are bound to be rumors,” Duncan shrugged. “All sorts of them. The point is not to get caught up in them because they’re probably just a bunch of bunk.”

He stuffed another forkful of cake into his face.

“Let’s talk about something less dark,” Ana said, pushing her plate away. She folded her arms on the table and leaned forward. “Tell us about yourself, Amelia. What school did you go to?”

Amelia shared a bit about herself, trying to forget the beginning of their conversation, and the other three reciprocated with school and research stories of their own. After a few minutes of chatter, she found herself enjoying the light-hearted laughter and gossip between the three friends. None of them seemed to share the same dread she did when thinking of Issac. None of them seemed concerned about their own safety. They were just excited to be at Sea Lab, working on projects they enjoyed and felt passionate about.

Maybe I’m losing my mind, Amelia thought, watching the others at the table, because I should feel the same way. 

Instead, when she thought of her role at Sea Lab, she felt an overwhelming sense of fear and dread. 

***

Co-written with Harold J. Petty