Sunlight does not penetrate deep beneath the ocean's surface. Down here in the slowness of real cold, far cold, the twinkling stars are the lures of fang-faced anglers and thousands of incandescent invertebrates. The glow of the moon is a phosphorescent jelly a meter across with its drifting net of stinging tendrils.
They found a lake down here once. A lake, underwater: liquid methane under a million trillion tons of ocean. Nothing should live down here. No light, no heat, and pressure that could crush a man to the size of a pea. Yet there is life. Great acres of tubeworms surround that peculiar lake, slow white crabs, shrimp, and waving bristle worms. They have adapted. They have changed and they can survive. The bacteria inside their bodies nurture them on methane. I wonder if they can see the living stars reflected in the surface of their lake or if they are blind like the salamanders that live in caves?
There aren't any windows on a submarine. It never bothered me before. Now I want to see those alien vistas before I die.
You never really stop to consider how fast things can fall underwater. We fell fast. Captain Towers was catching some shuteye and Grier had the bridge. I don't know what we hit or what hit us. It could have been a mountain, could have been some terrible animal that soft air-breathing mankind has never seen before, it could have even been another submarine. Who knows? Who gives a shit? Whatever we hit, we hit. Going at 14 knots. Flooded three compartments straight away and took down three more before we sealed up tight.
Grier ordered me back to the engine room. We had taken on so much water our only chance was to power our way out of it, but the engine room wasn't responding. I passed Captain Towers on my way there. He looked pissed and I could already see a raised welt the size of an apple from where he slammed his head into the fall bar. We were listing and he was spitting words that could strip paint off a house. I was about ten feet from the drop ladder to comms when we hit something again. There was this terrible groan of metal moving ways it shouldn't and then that roar every submariner fears: pressurized water. Close. Spraying in fast enough to blow through hatches.
I moved towards the ladder, steadying myself as the whole submarine did a half-roll in its pitiless descent. Then water was all around me. Ice cold and moving, rising. All of engineering and comms had flooded out, no survivors, and there I was on the wrong side of a closed hatch. I didn't have time to worry about a reactor breach. To worry that all that water had become deadly venom. I dove down into it and somehow - blind luck probably - I found the right hatch and closed it. I came up gasping just in time to feel another impact. The last one.
That was ten hours ago. About nine hours ago I realized I was the only person left alive on the submarine. An hour ago that changed.
The crash had reduced my inhabitable world to just two compartments. There were the captain's quarters and across the passage an officer's storage locker. I could also get into comms if I felt like swimming. Power was out so when the batteries started to die on my third and final emergency lamp I decided to go for a dip. I had a few chemical lights that would last me maybe an hour more so I knew I had to find something else to see with. Back down into the painful cold water, dark and full of drifting debris. Papers mostly, hundreds of them, rigid laminated charts, pencils, and here and there were bodies. Their eyes were open, staring at nothing, silver bubbles trapped in the hair on their arms as they spun slowly through the water.
It was a stupid thing to do: diving into a mess of clutter with no equipment. I didn't give a shit. The idea of dying in that total blackness of a powerless submarine was worse than drowning down in the communications section. Besides, there was no one left to write me up. My lungs ached and I dove down further. I pushed past the brilliant white corpse of Ensign McManus. His hands were fists and his legs were locked in position like he was running.
My lungs were on fire. My diaphragm started to spasm. It was screaming at me to fill up with air. Fill it up with whatever was outside. I was going to die down there.
My flickering flashlight swung across a bank of overhead stowage above the backup Simrad station. The submarine was resting at a 20 degree angle and there in the nook where the stowage compartments met the bulkhead was a dancing blob of mercury about the size of my head. Trapped air.
I pressed my face into it and gasped. The air was stale, cold, and tasted like metal, but it was air. One more deep breath and I dove back down, making my way to the crash kit. It had lost one of its securing bolts and was swiveling back and forth gently. I popped the tab and shit started spilling out into the water. The little hard plastic cases full of first aid material floated up past me. Six waterproof halogen lamps were in nylon holsters, but I grabbed a rebreather first. There were a lot of them in there, each with ten minutes of air. With the nozzle of the rebreather wedged in my mouth I fumbled the crash kit shut and pried it free of its remaining securing bolt.
When I reached the submerged ladder up to the main deck I let the fading light of my emergency lamp drop from my hand and pulled myself up the ladder. I heaved myself onto the deck and spit the rebreather out, dragging the crash kit up behind me. Out of the water it was damn heavy. An eerie oscillating light drifted up from comms where my discarded emergency lamp was choking the last bit of juice out of its batteries. I shivered. Cold. It was the cold. I snapped open the crash kit and yanked out one of the cylindrical halogen lamps. With a twist bright white light speared out.
I turned and saw him. He was sitting in a mess chair, which was funny because the mess was completely flooded and he was bone dry. He had graying brown hair and a heavily lined face cast in bold relief by the halogen lamp. His blue eyes bulged and the cruel slash of his mouth was pressed into a smile. He wore an expensive suit with no tie and it was as dry as the Gobi desert.
I was screaming inside, but I didn't break the silence.
"Hello," he said. "Your submarine seems to be in quite a predicament."
His voice was barely louder than a whisper and he had a strong but vague European accent.
"Who are you?" I asked.
"Maybe I'm the devil, here to take you down to hell." He laughed. "No. Not that. I am Udo Kier."
"Udo…Kier?" I was as incredulous as I was terrified.
"I am Udo Kier," he asserted. "You may have seen me in a movie once. Perhaps not. I have been in too many to count."
The submarine hull groaned.
"Your submarine is far below its maximum rated depth."
He stood, smoothly, like a python uncoiling from a dead child. His polished black shoes clicked and splashed on the water covering the metal of the deck. I followed him with the lamp. He walked over to the gently curving hull of the submarine and ran a fingertip up its side.
"Condensation," he said to himself. "That should not happen."
He was right. That much condensation inside the submarine meant that fractures had developed in the armored outer hull. The pressure hull was going to crack sooner or later.
"H-how did you get here?" Another icy cold shiver ran up my spine. I stood and steadied myself on the door to the captain's quarters.
"I go where my fancy takes me." He paused and turned to face me. "Where I want to go, I go."
He snapped his fingers.
"Why are you here?" I was on edge.
"I would like a quiet place to retire. Some place away from the bustle of cities. I am…checking out the neighborhood." He seemed disinterested.
"Let's get out of here. We can take your submarine."
I knew the proposal was ridiculous before I even finished speaking it. Udo Kier did not have a submarine. Udo Kier did not need a submarine. He was probably just some sort of hallucination. Nitrogen bubbling in my brain.
"There is no submarine." Udo Kier's laugh almost sounded like a cough. "I am not a super hero here to save you. I am an observer. I observe. I seek. I learn."
"Strange Days," I blurted, suddenly remembering one of the movies I had seen Udo Kier in.
"No." He shook his head sadly. "I am just too good at what I do. I become the movie and then no one ever remembers me."
"Your face is really familiar though. You were that creepy guy in-"
"I am always 'that creepy guy' in the movie." Udo Kier looked sad.
"Johnny Mnemonic!" I exclaimed. "You were that gay drug dealer in the bar."
"The character was not a homosexual!" He stormed and the hull groaned again in sympathy with his rage. "Yes. Yes, I was in that awful shit of a film. Most of mine are."
"Then tell me a good one you've been in."
"Zentropa," he offered.
I shook my head.
"It was Lars Von Trier! I am in almost all of his movies!"
"No idea. Are his movies good?"
"What about Shadow of the Vampire? Did you see that?"
"No. Wait! Yes! You were the vampire in that?!"
He looked quite displeased.
"I give up on you. Let us speak of other things."
We spoke of other things.
The captain had a magnetic miniature chess set in the drawer of his desk. Udo was in the process of beating me for the third time.
"How long are you staying?" I asked as his knight took my rook.
"Check." He glanced up at me with his bulging eyes. "We are friends until the end."
He was staying until I died. I moved my king behind a pawn. It would be checkmate in two moves.
"So you came just to watch me die here?"
He snapped up the pawn with his bishop. I couldn't take it with the king or I would be moving into checkmate. I had two moves and both of them were one step away from checkmate.
"I told you earlier I am here to observe. I want to experience the deep. It may be my home one day."
"It seems to me you're avoiding the deep by playing chess with me in a wrecked nuclear submarine." I chose the equal of two evils and moved my king into inevitable checkmate. "So the game ends."
There was a groan and a squeal of deforming metal that echoed through the silent ship.
"It will be soon," Udo said unnecessarily. "The forward hatch will develop a fracture along its seal. That fracture will enlarge to the size of a dime in three seconds. Then the hatch will give way and the water will come."
"You paint a lovely picture." I started to rearrange the chess pieces for another game.
Udo Kier shook his reptilian head.
"No time. You have just over four minutes."
I was going to ask him how he knew, but I was pretty sure he really did know.
"I don't know," I said and continued arranging the chess pieces, "you can probably beat me one last time."
"I cannot save you. My personal ethics forbid it. I can offer you a last wish. I can make it quick for you. Painless."
"No, I want to see the deep before I die."
"The pressure will crush your lungs and burst your eardrums. You may only survive for a few seconds." Udo seemed to be trying to discourage me, but he had a twinkle in his bulbous eyes.
"That's okay. Just a glimpse."
Maybe I would adapt like those crabs by their underwater lake. Maybe the bacteria would fill me up in that moment before I died and I would wake up, happy and at home in the impossibly hot water around a black smoker.
"I have to go make arrangements." Udo Kier smiled. "When the hatch breaks exhale with all of your strength. You might gain a second or two longer."
Udo Kier was gone. He did not stand up or walk out of the captain's quarters, he was just gone. Maybe he was never there.
The seal breaks on the forward hatch and it sounds almost like a cork popping on a bottle of champagne. Here's to you, submarine. Three seconds pass and the hatch smashes past the door to the captain's quarters on a thrashing column of water. It takes only a few more seconds and the frigid water is at my ankles, my knees, roaring around me. I'm lifted out of the chair and I rise towards the ceiling. It's so fucking cold. I'm set for life, I can count this thing down on my hands and toes.
I'm watching the ceiling get closer and closer and treading water like a fat kid when the submarine decides to open up. She pops her girdle like a saloon whore after a long day with the cowboys. Air rushes out in a huge bubble and I'm in it. It won't last. I take a deep breath. This is it. Last time for you lungs. I exhale just as the pressure crushes the bubble.
Astronauts have it easy. Decompression for them is worrying about getting sucked out a little hole or blasted out an airlock. Space isn't so bad. You can't breathe out there and some bad timing will get you flash fried or frozen, but it just doesn't hurt on its own. You don't fucking blow up like in the movies, not if you play it smart.
No matter how smart you play it 1,500 meters down you can't beat 100 atmospheres of pressure. And oh god does it hurt.
I'm coming apart like Indian corn thrown at a barn wall but somehow I can still see. Doing a little spin out there in the deadly deep, disoriented by all that salt water blasting into my brain, but the shit is holding together for a few. Out there I can see the stars twinkling. Thousands of them, at least, each one a little life as alien to me as a fucking green Martian flying in a saucer would be. A transparent shrimp drifts past my face, the size of a fingernail, and squirts a stream of glowing blue ink at me. Jellies are everywhere in sizes and shapes that defy description, their bodies radiant ripples of photophores.
There's a cold 'pop' and one of my eyes goes in a little red cloud. The lute play the flute, the carp play the harp, the fang tooth angler likes the taste of my blood. Like a decapitated vampire head taking chunks out of my arm. Sure it hurts, but these days what doesn't?
It's a great way to go until I see Udo Kier. He's naked, disturbingly so, and seemingly unharmed by the lethal pressure. A hairy angler the size of my fist starts worrying at the meat of my calf and I can sense a giant gulper eel on its way over for a taste of delicious old me. But fuck that, what is Udo Kier doing ruining my grand finale? I squint through the vibrating orb of my good eye. Udo Kier is kissing - nay, violating - a colossal squid. He embraces his newfound friend in the throes of passion and turns to look at me, his eyes full of mirth.
"Oh, yes," he seems to say. "I have adapted."
"Fuck you!" I burble.
My other eye goes and it is dark and cold and hard around me. I should have let myself drown in the comms room. The gulper eels lunges towards me with its mouth open wide. That's okay, I'm already dead.
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Urine? Or perhaps an abundance of crotch sweat? Either way, it's a good thing you're in a karate class. This is the ideal place to covertly get some airflow down there, speeding up the evaporation process by as much as 4%.
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