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I was trying to change the world in my own small way. When I say that, I’m not being modest. I was trying to change the world with my patented nano-exploration technology. It’s small, and I own it. I do love precision.
The ocean floor trip wasn’t my idea. The spaceheads insisted I hadn’t sufficiently proven unconstrained pressurized environments, which was bullshit, but I needed their money to pay off the first investors. I’m a genius, not an accountant.
The compression process caused some fuzziness in my thoughts. It was a brief high, like I’d popped a couple of quick synoids without limiters. I checked to make sure I’d come through without distortion. I could see my brown eyes and brown crewcut in the mirror-like surface of the capsule wall, my thin, naked body as uninspiring as ever. The slouch between my shoulder blades from too much computer use, the thatch of brown wisps around equipment that never saw use. All ship-shape. I grabbed a miniature towel to preserve the illusion of my modesty, even though my assistant monitored the whole process.
This chamber is the first part of my system. To put it in terms the average person might understand, I squeeze the space out of atoms. Not all of it, the electrons still need to move, but 99.9996% of it can go. I’d gone from 194cm to about 4.5cm in the chamber. I can also pump the space back in, so to speak. It’s hard on your body—I was close to my personal limit—but I only needed it to work once more. It was spacehead money or bust.
The second part is the good part, the reason the spaceheads came to me and not someone else. You’d assume I still weighed 68kg, because all I took out was space, but you’d be wrong. My real genius ideas, the patented ones, are the ones that make me (or anything) weigh a proportionate amount to its new size. I’m not going to explain because you wouldn’t understand it, but I weighed less than one kilogram. I’d feel a little on edge but completely functional.
The third part of the system was a suite of miniaturized envirosuits and vehicles engineered so tiny people could go where no one had gone before. The spaceheads were slobbering for these, and I would make huge risk-free money on them. That’s probably why I agreed to do the sea thing, which was not risk-free, even after we’d passed all the lab tests.
“You okay, Dr. Hurley?” Delaney asked, putting down a small cage I could be safely carried in. The last thing I needed was to be dropped on the floor and splattered like Humpty Dumpty.
“Yes, thank you, Delaney.” A middle-aged woman with good credentials, my lab assistant wasn’t young or beautiful, but she was competent and dedicated. She carried me over to the table and turned her back as I put on a miniature dive suit and tank.
When she turned, she was chewing on her chapped bottom lip, a tic she should have outgrown 20 years ago. “I don’t think you should do this,” she blurted. Her cheeks flamed red at her boldness. “I don’t think it’s safe. The probabilities suggest a much higher risk of loss than you told astrotravel.”
I frowned up at her from the table. “The test is set and the spaceheads are expecting the results in three days. It can’t wait.”
“I know the astrotravel people want it, but I have a really bad feeling.”
“Feelings don’t pay the bills, Delaney. As we have discussed before, this lab is no place for feelings.” She flinched, and I knew that was a low blow, but I needed her to focus on her end of the experiment. She really would lose me if she was wringing her hands instead of tracking.
“Yes, Dr. Hurley,” she muttered. She went back to work, avoiding eye contact and keeping her vague issues to herself, where they belonged.
She hardly spoke to me during the van ride or the trip out to sea. That worked for me. I was redoing calculations in my head, making sure the force on the ocean floor wasn’t going to compress my body beyond functioning. I’d done these calculations hundreds of times, and done sims in the comp environment, but this was going to be life-or-death. My life or death. When we hit the coordinates, the captain cut the engines and I switched on my locator.
I attached the thin retrieval cord to my suit, made of carbon fiber to reduce weight and drag. We tested the communicators, and I swear mine frosted up a little at Delaney’s tone, but everything was working. She dropped me in the water a little faster than necessary and I felt more like a chunk of bait than a scientist. Oh, wide ocean, you are deep and full of terrors, but you have nothing on a woman scorned.
I made the descent smoothly, recording data at each depth checkpoint. My body was working fine, nothing bothering me, respiration normal. Your breathing is the first thing to go if there’s a problem, at least I think it is, so I watch like a coal miner with a pet canary.
I would be on the ocean floor at the desired depth for ten minutes. It wasn’t as long as the spaceheads wanted, but it was long enough to show I wasn’t just holding my breath. It was gorgeous down there. Very little sunlight made it down from the surface, and my headlamp’s glow reflected off the quartz and pyrite crystals in the sand, a dazzling diamond palace. I adjusted the filter on my helmet lamp to keep from blinding myself.
“Delaney, how much longer do we have on the clock?”
“Nine minutes exactly,” she replied, distant but calm. I decided to throw her a conciliatory line, feeling bad about rubbing salt in her wound earlier.
“Great, it’s really amaz—”
From behind, powerful suction knocked me off my feet and my body rushed backwards, bent in two like a folding chair. My safety line trailed from its connection on my suit, pulling slack that Delaney must have noticed. Sand and grit, the size of gravel at this scale, started to billow around me.
“What is it? What’s going on?” Delaney barked.
“Rogue current,” I panted, fruitlessly fighting the pull of the water.
“Go with the current!” Delaney yelled, and I realized she was right. I’d die fighting it, but maybe I’d survive if I reserved my strength. As long as I didn’t exhaust my air, I’d be fine until she could reel me in. I rolled into a ball and flipped my body, a college diver again, putting my hands above my head in the swimmer’s prayer. I was moving fast, a shark now, unable to see through the disturbed muck. I had to hope that the current wasn’t going to toss me into a rock and break my neck.
“I’m swimming with it,” I gasped, trying to give Delaney some indication that the situation was improving. “Just keep track of my lo—” As suddenly as it had started, the current stopped. I continued forward momentum, but the current was no longer pulling. My line fell into a loop behind me as Delaney continued to feed out slack. “Stop!” I barked. “I’m not moving anymore, don’t put any more line—”
Without warning, the water moved again. I was pulled off balance, dragging slack line behind me. After a few inches, I was jerked to a halt as the loop of line caught on something in the sand. The current wasn’t letting up, but I felt my line pulled back toward the boat, jerking against whatever rock or coral it was snagged on as it grew taut.
“Delaney! Wait!” was all I got out before she gave the line a big panicked yank. It shredded against a sharp edge on the object and separated. The end still attached to the boat zipped away in a trail of tiny bubbles, and I was again caught by the current. “Delaney!” I yelled. My locator would tell them where to pick me up, but I suddenly felt very small and vulnerable, an astronaut left to drift in hostile space.
My pity party didn’t waste any time yelling “Surprise!” I slammed into something behind me, not hard edges of coral, but soft and yielding, like a thicket of sea grass. The tendrils swayed and buffeted me as the current continued to rush through them. My relief was quickly replaced by the sensation that something wasn’t right. I was too deep for sea grass, and it should have been moving with the current, not in every direction.
As my body recovered, I tried to make sense of what little I could see. My light was still on, but the waving plants made shadows as they covered the lens and moved away, making it hard to get oriented. The branched fronds were nearly white and somewhat translucent, with fringed ends. I couldn’t identify it. I’d have to look it up when I was back on the surface. I dug an elbow in, trying to lever myself out of it.
The current stopped again, helping to free me. I kicked back into the grass, trying to swim away. That was a mistake. The tentacles of the creature, realizing I was live prey, shot after me and wrapped around my legs and neck. Not sea grass. Not even close. I could feel the pressure of each limb as it groped over me, exploring every inch of my suit. The tentacles clamped and receded, clamped and receded, moving me into their center. I could feel them slithering across my suit, across me, and it was like lying in a pit of snakes, letting them writhe over you while you desperately suppressed the urge to move. As the thing turned my body, I finally got a look at it, the source of the soft, slithering manacles.
A black hole was open in front of me, a mouth big enough to engulf me. I recovered from my shock enough to scream. Fighting against the hold of the creature did nothing but increase its resolve to ingest me. It clamped down harder, squeezing my breath out and halting my struggle. I slid, helpless to resist, headfirst into the gullet of the monster.
My comms came to life. “Why….you…eaming? …at happe…. oh god…..Travis….god!” Delaney’s voice was cutting out. The comms weren’t optimized for intracreature use.
On the inside, I took a few deep breaths as the pressure of the tentacles lessened. Water came barreling in through the mouth and I felt myself lodging further down the digestive tract. As the creature squeezed its body again, I felt an inner heat, like burning from the inside. My light wasn’t showing me anything but white and pink flesh clouded by suspended sea floor muck.
The pulses were steady and relentless. The pink flesh molded to my body and squeezed, and I became disoriented and hot, so hot. Breathing wasn’t the first thing to go, it was temperature control. Interesting. The seawater rushing in cooled my body enough to clear my head, but it only lasted a few seconds. Then the walls would contract again, immobilizing and confusing me. I gave up on controlling my body while I tried desperately to control my mind.
Sea cucumber. The thought popped in during a lucid moment and it seemed right. I’d been sucked into a large sea cucumber. That was bad, but something worse was going on, and I couldn’t quite grasp it. The red heat of the pulsing kept interrupting as I teased the end of the thread. So hot. All I could think about was the next cycle of heat and pain. Heat. It was something about the heat. Compression and heat.
“Delaney!” I screamed. “I’m going bomb! Do something!” No answer, and the sea cucumber pressed again, and it was hotter, and I faded out. I woke kicking and screaming, a brief moment of relief from the pressure, the pulsing that was going not just to kill me, but leave a crater in the ocean floor a mile wide. I was compressed by my procedure, and under higher than normal pressure on the ocean floor, and now this sea cucumber was going to squeeze out what little space my atoms had left. Then….KABOOM! I kept fighting until the sea cucumber’s muscles closed in again, boiling my body by fractions.
“Trav…we have to…cuate. Will ….. track….but….tain…have to go.” I half heard her voice through the sound of my own blood rushing through my over-heated brain. Cowards. They were trying to outrun a nuclear explosion in a boat. It was laughable.
I screamed again as the heat and pressure wiped out all else. I screamed at the pain and the abandonment. My life was going to end, but worse, my work was going to die with it. I’d be remembered as a fool who’d played with forces he couldn’t harness and destroyed himself and a big section of the ocean. A madman.
When the pressure released, I could still feel heat in my arms and legs. I was getting closer to detonation. I kept screaming. I rallied what strength I had and punched and kicked the sea cucumber’s insides. I braced myself for the next pulse, but the rhythm was disrupted, slower. The monster might not have a brain, but I was triggering something. Say what you want about my lack of social skills, I was distinguishing myself from seafloor muck.
I screamed and kicked, renewed by the hope that I was causing the animal to regret its choices. I tried to turn, to claw my way back out the animal’s mouth, but that was a one-way door. Water rushed in and I was forced backward again. Now I was lodged in feet-first with even less mobility. Dumb, dumb. I flailed ineffectively.
Another squeezing pulse started, but different, more intense. I screamed a rasping sound. My lungs were compressed, my atomic structure was compressed, and I imagined I could feel the electrons hitting their nuclei, fusing in a destructive release of energy. The intensity wasn’t the only difference. The stomach was compressing and moving at the same time, sliding inside the body of the creature, oozing and compacting. Vertigo overtook me, the colors of the creature’s insides blending into a red and black weight on my eyes. The heat felt like blades slicing through me, pulsing and blooming, then receding only to reform at another place.
My mind was scattered, disorganized…here was my 5th birthday party, the one where I ate too much cake and threw up in the pool….here was the first time I had sex, backseat, all over in minutes…here was last year when Delaney declared her “feelings” and I told her that wasn’t a possibility, her crying the whole time, no tissues and tears caught in the folds between her chins, wet and glistening. The end of the world was a trite cliché after all.
The sensation of movement was confused, rhythmic but from too many directions, pressing in and moving my body. The heat and pain and nausea threatened my consciousness again, and I fought, grinding my teeth together until heat shot through the roots. This pain gave me a new focus, and I kicked the stomach walls again. The organ was slickly compressed around me like I’d been coated in solidified mucus, but I felt a slight clenching, creating another wave of hot slicing knives in my body.
I bit down again, trying to get the feeling back, trying to control the pain, but I couldn’t. The sliding sensation intensified with the burning, and my body tried to eject the small amount of food I’d eaten before the dive. I bit harder. The pain expanded from that central point, creating an expanding ring that calmed the chaos a little.
There was one last hard squeeze, igniting my bones this time, internal fire lighting up the nerves so severely that I imagined I could see them, a branching system of molten metal searing its way through my arms, legs, heart. I was still screaming, I think, but not making any sound. My air tank wasn’t in danger of being crushed, and the seals were holding, thankfully, but detonation was seconds away.
With a great pulse and push, I was rocketed through the inside of the sea cucumber. The flesh of the creature rushed by in a sickening motion, a water slide greased with motor oil. I was a comet, bright and burning inside, moving through space at a speed I couldn’t comprehend. The sea cucumber pushed again, more heat, more lateral movement, and then…cool water surrounded me. My light was still on, and it shone dimly through the membrane of the sea cucumber’s stomach. I couldn’t see clearly, but I could see shadows moving, swirling, something that looked like tentacles but didn’t move with purpose, just drifted lazily.
I’d been expelled in the thing’s digestive system. I could feel my body cooling rapidly inside the sea cucumber’s stomach. My thoughts were fuzzy and disorganized, brain damage was likely, but my body was going to go into shock before that could be explored. I was too weak to break out by myself, weak as a child after a high fever has broken.
“Delaney,” I whispered. I tried again, managing an audible noise. “Delaney!” The comms crackled and I worried they were already out of range. The entire ordeal couldn’t have taken more than a few minutes, they couldn’t be that far away yet, could they?
“DELANEY!” I yelled.
“Travis?” Her response was tentative, as if she wasn’t sure it was me. Who the hell else would it be?
“Send the diver,” I said, and then I ran out of things to say for a long time.
Copyright© 2019, Rebecka Ratcliffe, All Rights Reserved.
The Story: I wrote this after a friend posted his opinion that there was no way to make a sea cucumber scary. I, of course, took that as a dare. The result is this little sci-fi piece that uses the brainless little blob as an agent of a larger problem, not the actual monster we should fear at the bottom of the sea. I hope you enjoyed it! Sci-fi isn’t my normal sandbox, so it was fun to kick the dirt around in there. Got something you want me to try next? Send it to email@example.com and I’ll get it in the queue.
PS. I am learning audio editing RIGHT NOW. I expect that the quality of the recordings will do nothing but improve. If you like having the audio, drop me a line to let me know.