Christopher Galt Novels






EXTRACT

A FEAR OF DARK WATER
By Craig Russell



Und das Meer gab die Toten, die darin waren… Offenbarung, Lutherbibel

And the sea gave up the dead which were in it… Revelations, King James Bible
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Thalassophobia is a fear of large and deep bodies of dark water, such as seas or lakes, where the bottom cannot be seen. As a specific phobia, it is not related to aquaphobia or other water phobias but is more akin to agoraphobic conditions.

It is not a fear of water itself. It is a fear of the void: of what lies beneath the surface.
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PROLOGUE

1.

Fifteen Years before the Storm

Too deep.

Korn hit the Pharos One comms link again. He heard Wiegand’s voice, but the transmission was breaking up. No crackle or hiss: the digital communications system had no degrees of function; the signal was either there or it was not. Wiegand’s anxiety came to Korn in severed syllables and silences. Shards of words. Sharp edged.

Korn looked at the submersible’s depth meter. Oh Jesus, too deep, too deep. And still dropping. Dropping faster. Three thousand metres. Three thousand two hundred. Three thousand six hundred. No sense of falling, of descent. Just the relentless plunge of the reading on the depth meter.

Beneath him the trench. Around him the water; chill, dense, crushing. Black.

It was a different universe. A different reality.

Pharos One had travelled the shortest of distances. A journey of three and a half kilometres. On land, you could walk it comfortably in three-quarters of an hour. Yet Korn was now in a place as remote to mankind as space. As the moon.

Four thousand metres.

Now, Korn was on the edge of the abyss. Literally. This was where the abyssopelagic zone began. The water outside was now beyond any normal understanding of the concepts of water, of a liquid. This was deep in the aphotic layers of the ocean, where all life was blind in a lightless universe. The readings showed that the water temperature outside was near freezing, yet it remained fluid because of its intense salinity. It was a liquid, yet had an unimaginable, crushing density. Korn knew that already the pressure was four hundred times that of the atmosphere at sea level, and it increased by one atmosphere for every ten meters the Pharos One submersible sank.

‘I’ve lost control,’ he shouted into the comms. ‘The control desk is completely dead. You have to try to bring me up remotely…’

More sharp shards of speech came through the comms. Korn knew that that was how he would have sounded to the mother ship on the surface. If basic communications were not working, then there was no chance of them establishing a reliable remote control link. And even if they could link in, there was no guarantee that whatever system failure had robbed him of control had not also severed the link with the remote navigation computer.

Another shatter of syllables.

Korn didn’t attempt to answer. He tried to think. Or more accurately he tried to slow his brain, to clear it of panic, so that he could think. Why had Pharos One’s main motors cut? Why had he no control from the helm? And why had the submersible experienced such a catastrophic loss of buoyancy? It was as if the whole system had collapsed. He was sure that the engines were okay; the steering gear. It was an electronic fault, rather than mechanical. Why didn’t he know? He had helped to design the Pharos One; planned its electronic management himself; designed failsafe systems with Wiegand. How had this happened?

And having helped design the Pharos One, Korn knew that, unlike a bathyscaphe, it did not have ultimate buoyancy. Its mix of gasoline and electromagnet capture ballast was limited. Korn had insisted on a submersible capable of reaching significant depth, but which could ‘fly’ through its environment. Without motive power its weight would, ultimately, sink it.

Korn stared out through fused quartz into the dark water, the beams of the iodine floodlights picking up an upward snowstorm of particles. Then something pale was caught in the external navigation lights. An intricate basket star, like a lost lace doily, drifted up and past the window; the only life he could see. If you could call it life. Bloodless, capable of regenerating parts of itself, even reproducing a complete new creature from a lost tentacle. A being with a sixty-five million year old pedigree.

I should not be here. The thought hit Korn as he watched the basket star drift up and out of sight. Not a passing thought; a revelation. A rejection of years of study; of millions in investment. Of a lifetime’s devotion. I should not be here. Suddenly it struck Korn that his presence in this place was as preposterous as the basket star he had sunk past exploring the heights of Mount Everest. I have no right to be here. This is not our world. He thought of the time, the effort, the money he had poured into the Pharos Project. Millions.

Void. Korn heard Wiegand’s one complete word before the comms went completely dead. Void. Void what? It was a word well suited to the black, crushing emptiness around him. But Wiegand had been trying to tell him something. Korn tried to raise the mother ship again, but there was no response. He hit the main motor control. Nothing. The desk was still dead. I am going to die here, he thought. I’m going to die and no one will ever find my body and I deserve it because I should not be here.

Creaking.

It was a low, rumbling groan, like a sea creature moaning in the abyss. But Korn knew it was the ribs of the pressure hull protesting. He looked desperately around the cabin; at the tightly, claustrophobically confined space of reinforced steel that surrounded him; at the thick quartz of the portholes. Maybe it would be quick. He had imagined himself coming to rest at the bottom of the trench, trapped and motionless, going claustrophobically insane as he waited for the one hundred hours of oxygen to run out. Screaming and clawing. But he realized that the Pharos One would soon exceed its safe operating parameters. Maybe it would be a rivet that would kill him; fired, bullet-like, from its socket by the intense pressure of crushing water. Or maybe, and more likely, he would be squeezed to death, like a bug between fingers, by the implosion of steel as the hull yielded.

Wiegand’s voice again. This time clear.

‘Dominik!’

Korn stared at the depth meter. Four thousand, eight hundred metres. Five thousand. Oh God, no. Too deep. Too deep.

‘Dominik!’

‘I’m here,’ he said and was surprised at how dull his voice was. There was a sound. Not loud, but constant: a soft, mechanical whirring. The engines.

‘We’ve overridden the controls, Dominik. Dominik, can you hear me?’

‘I’m here,’ he said. ‘I shouldn’t be here.’

‘Dominik, listen to me. Concentrate. Put on your evac suit.’

‘Evac suit?’ Korn suddenly felt alert. A voice from five kilometres and a universe away woke something in him. ‘What the hell use is an evac suit? I’m down nearly five thousand metres.’

‘We’ve got the readings on your power levels. Something’s damaged the cells. We can get you up, we think. Maybe all the way, maybe not.’

Korn looked at the depth gauge again. For a second that seemed to last forever, it stayed static. Then, unbearably slowly, it started to indicate ascent.

‘Do you hear me, Dominik?’

‘I hear you.’ Now fully alert, and suffering. The unbearable pain of hope. ‘I’ll do it. I’m doing it.’ Korn fumbled furiously at the restraint belt. He struggled in the coffin confines of the cabin to pull the suit from its housing behind the command chair; wrestled into it. Neoprene and rubber cuff seals strangle tight, the bright orange evac suit loose tented around him. A second confinement.

‘You’re going to have to hurry, Dominik...’ Wiegand’s voice over the comms was tight and even. Forced. Artificial calm wrapped around panic. ‘Listen Dominik, when the power fails, we’re going to void all of the ballast. It’ll be explosive. We’re hoping the momentum will topside you. But you’re going to come up fast. Too fast. Do you understand?’

‘I understand,’ said Korn, voice muffled through the plastic screen of the suit’s hood.

‘You may lose comms again. You’ve got to keep watching the depth gauge. If your ascent stops, you’ve got to get out and come up in the evac suit. We may get you all the way up to the surface without evac, but if we don’t, you’ve got to act fast. You’ll drop like a stone again otherwise. Have you got that, Dominik?’

‘Got it. Just get me out of here, Peter.’

‘We’re going to kill all power except the engines and comms. Hold tight until we bring back the control panel lights.’

Darkness. A darkness beyond any night. To begin with he could see nothing; then something drifted past the quartz porthole. Something glowing in the distance. A single bright pinpoint. Bioluminescence: an Angler Fish or Cookiecutter Shark creating its own distant speck of light in the abyss, like a distant lighthouse. A beacon. For a second, Korn fixed his full attention on that small, faint glimmer and it seemed to him to have a profound significance he could not quite grasp.

The control board before him lit up again. The few blinking buttons and the LED display of the depth gauge suddenly blindingly bright after the abyssal dark. Three thousand meters. There was an alert light on the suit. When he switched it on, its flashing exploded in the cabin. More creaking. The sea still wanting to crush him out of existence.

‘Dominik...’ Wiegand’s voice again.

‘Go ahead.’

‘We have to get you up to at least one-eighty metres. The evac suit’s tested to that depth. Just relax and let it bring you up. The suit’s designed to ascend no faster than three metres a second, so don’t worry about decompression sickness. But you must get out if there’s any sign the module isn’t going to make it to the surface.’

One thousand five hundred metres.

‘I shouldn’t be here,’ Korn said, to himself. ‘We shouldn’t be here.’

‘Repeat, Dominik…’

‘I said we shouldn’t be here. We have no right. We shouldn’t have the presumption, the arrogance...’

‘I need you to focus, Dominik,’ Wiegand’s voice cut across him. ‘Stay focussed. Got it?’

Nine hundred meters. Eight.

‘I’m focussed, Peter. I’m more focussed than you think...’

The water outside became less dark. Not lighter; less dark.

‘Keep your eyes on the gauge, Dominik...’

The constant, reassuring whirr of the motors stopped.

‘Peter...’

‘Brace, Dominik!’ Wiegand’s voice over the comms was urgent. ‘I’m going to vent the tanks. Brace!’

Something thundered around Korn. Deafening. Uncompressible petroleum ballast being voided from the stabilizing tanks. Steel ballast released from the Pharos One’s electromagnetic grip. Now he felt movement. A surge upward pinning him to his seat. He clung tight to the arm rests, trying to control his breathing, his pulse pounding in his ears.

‘Peter?’

The comms system was down again. He was alone once more, but surging up to the environment he belonged in. His true place in the world. Out of the depths.

De profundis.

Five hundred metres. Four. Three. He snapped the red cover off the emergency explosive bolt release and pushed back the trigger guard. He had to time it right. Exactly right. Two hundred and eighty meters. Just a little more.

He knew what he was seeing, but didn’t want to see it. His ascent was slowing. Two hundred forty… twenty… Even slower now. Two hundred. Too deep. Still too deep. The gauge held for an eternity at one seventy.

Now. Do it now. His reason screamed at him: he knew that the impetus given by the explosive voiding of the tanks was spent. There was only one way to go now: back down into the abyss. Yet something froze him: an irrational hope that the submersible would somehow overcome the universal laws of physics.

One hundred and eighty.

He had lost ten crucial metres and gained one atmosphere of extra pressure. He checked his restraint harness was fastened and pulled the switch and the explosive bolts fired, releasing the hatch.

It was like being hit by a car: the water did not surge into the cabin, it rammed into the back of the command chair like a solid mass. An intense, steel-sharp pain shot through his arm and into his shoulder. He knew his forearm had been broken, but when he checked his arm, it wasn’t to examine the extent of the break but to make sure the sleeve of the evac suit hadn’t ruptured. It hadn’t.

Slamming the fist of his uninjured arm into the release buckle, Korn undid the safety harness. Ignoring the sharp pain in his arm, he scrabbled around behind his chair and pushed himself out of the Pharos One’s only hatch, at the rear of the vessel. He was going to be coming out of a fast-sinking submersible; he needed to get out and clear fast. A snagged sleeve or belt, or becoming tangled in the robot arm, and he might end up trapped there, dragged back down to the bottom. As it was, he reckoned he’d have lost another ten, maybe twenty metres. Suddenly, he was outside, in the open water. Pushing away. The survival suit insulated him against the cold, swelled up with captive air to resist the worst of the pressure, but its buoyancy pushed him upwards against the rear hull of the sinking submersible.

He braced his legs against the bright yellow hull and pushed away with his feet. He was free. Free and rising.

He watched the Pharos One sink beneath him. Silent. Fading fast in the gloom; becoming smaller then gradually invisible in the dark of the water. He looked at the depth gauge on the wrist of his suit. One sixty and rising.

Survivable. Dangerous, but definitely survivable. He was going to make it.

He continued to rise at a decompression safe rate for another ninety-seven metres. He could see, vague and distant above him, the attenuated bloom of day.

The surface.

It was at that moment that the material of his evac suit – which, unknown to Korn, had been caught on a hull rivet and stretched to tolerance when he had been evacuating the Pharos One – split open and exploded into a constellation of escaping air bubbles.

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all material © Craig Russell