Monday, November 26, 2012

A new short from the down deep

Rapture of the Deep

“Did you see that?” Larson’s mechanized voice buzzes in my ear.

“Larson, maintain operational silence.” My voice comes out high pitched and incomprehensible, like one of those damn singing chipmunks on crack. After a moment of lag I hear my mechanized voice over the com system.

Larson knows better than to squeak so much as a ‘yes, Master Chief.’ He’s a good kid and damn fine diver, but he is too friggin’ jumpy for a mission like this. He aced his quals and can lay a mean weld at 500 fsw, but he sees too many ghosts. The oppressive pressure of more than 450 psi squeezing in and the suffocating blackness of the deep gets to him. Instead of being satisfied with the meager light thrown out directly in front of us by our headlamps, he lets his mind create demons that fill the abyss beyond his short arc of knowledge. The kid sees too many ghosts to walk the depths blind.

On 10 November 2013 at 0130, the USS George Washington sat in the South China Sea and watched a Chinese transport bird disappear from radar. The Commander immediately pulled back all vessels and planes in the vicinity and placed his squadron on alert, he was not getting blamed for this one.

At 0410, I got the call to rouse my crew and be ready on the Sasebo tarmac by 0600. At that point it became a game of hurry up and wait. Moving the SATFADS team is a marvel of modern logistics. We are six of the most elite deep divers in the world, two control centers built into the shape of standard shipping containers, and a bang-up surface support crew. Give us three C-130s and platform and we can put men on the ocean floor, more than a thousand feet down, anywhere in the world.

By 1800 we were installed on the USS Denver and prepping to make our first dive. The Chinese bird sat in 1,200 fsw (publically we only dive to 1,000) and it was to be reconnaissance only. Easy peasy. We’d drop in the water, take a look around, give the brass some fuzzy footage to analyze till the cows come home, and then we would hop in the bubble, ride to the surface and decompress for the next nine days.

Easy peasy. That’s what I kept telling myself. Routine mission. Keep calm. Breathe steady. The brass tells us what we need to know to get the job done and we always get the job done. Get in, do the job, get out, go home to your family. Hooyah! But it’s hard. Left in the dark long enough, even the Master Chief will start seeing ghosts.

“Master Chief, is it true that they called us?” Larson had asked as we prepped for the dive.

“Kid, it doesn’t matter who called who. The boss says dive, so we dive. That’s all that matters,” had been my answer. It was straight out of the textbook. It shut him up as we finished our checklists, but the kid is smart. The same thing that was gnawing on me was gnawing on him. Since when did the Chinese start calling us for recon missions on their lost military gear?

At 1200 fsw the pressure is unimaginable, almost unbearable. It squeezes in around you and fills every nook and cranny, always looking for that beautiful balancing act of equilibrium. Here the ocean is master, and no other element dares to challenge it. All light from the surface is blotted out. The astronauts claim with arrogance to walk the most inhospitable environment imaginable. They are wrong. At least they have vision. At least they have the sun and stars. At least they have the view of home. Walkers of the deep, we have nothing but the eternal darkness of the planet’s hostile bowels.

It takes years of training to develop the fortitude and focus required to tune out and ignore the monsters the brain creates to fill the emptiness. It’s inconceivable to the mind that there is nothing filling the void beyond our infinitesimal lights and so the mind dances and plays. It creates and destroys. It becomes god and devil simultaneously.

There is a madness that consumes you as a diver in the down deep. A fine line between raving lunatic and glorious adventurer. The solitude engulfs you. Even though your partner stands beside you on the rocky bottom and you have a direct line of communication to him and the surface crew, you are completely alone and yet completely dependent. You are hours from the surface and days from being able to breathe unassisted. Even once you are back on the surface in your chamber you still must endure the painfully slow climb as they drop the theoretical pressure by minute increments. You must suffer with the knowledge that if anyone was to undog the hatch prematurely, you would die instantly as you embolized and every airspace in your body exploded to balance the equation and create splendid equilibrium. It is this knowledge that creates a shiver that even the hot water lines coursing through your dive suit can’t counteract.

“Master Chief, there it is,” Larson says. His mechanical voice doesn’t relay the trepidation I am sure is there.

Grey particles of both life and death swirl and dance before me, obscuring the visibility. But sure enough, the edge of a wing pokes into sight at the far reaches of our beams. Step by step, we move our weighted boots closer and closer to the wreck. We wade slowly and deliberately, the pressure of the deep resisting our every move.

“Blackman to Surface,” I say, “I confirm Larson’s sighting. We have located the target.”

“Roger, proceed with tagging.”

“Aye,” I answer. I keep my words short. They are precious in the deep. The narcosis is ever present, always drifting just out of sight, like the ghosts. Too much effort, too much exertion and it can take over. I’ve seen greater men than I, debilitated by terrifying fits of maniacal and deadly laughter brought on simply by the squeak of their vocal chords under the influence of nothing more than helium and pressure. 

I make my way to the fuselage of the plane, looking for a strong anchor point. I can only see bits of it at a time, illuminated in the small swaths afforded by my headlamp. The rest of the craft belongs to the demons of the dark.

“It looks to be intact,” Larson’s voice echoes.

“Yep,” I say.

“There is a pad-eye here.”

I cast a sidelong glance toward my partner and illuminate his bulky form, trying to avoid his face. He has located the gaping entrance of the forward crew door, which has been blown free and is absent.  I move to his side and a pull a surface marker from my belt. I clip it to the pad-eye, pull the cord and watch as the CO2 cartridge faithfully does its duty and inflates the yellow bag, a rocket to the surface pulling 1,500 feet of line.

“Marker One released,” I say.

The seconds tick by; they grow and stretch into minutes and then an eternity. Time is unnatural at depth.   

“Marker One has been sighted. Commence external survey,” the Surface confirms.

“Aye,” I say.

Larson and I move slowly around the craft, an exaggerated dance with the supreme element. Each step is heavy and deliberate. Each step is exhausting. No movement is wasted. We take turns watching the other’s umbilical, our lifeline to humanity.

Larson’s initial assessment is largely true. The aircraft is intact. The windows have been crushed in from the pressure and the nose gapes open from a water impact. There are signs of warping and stress from the depths but there are no signs of critical failure. This plane was not shot down. Whatever brought this mistress of the skies to the abyss was borne from within.

“External survey complete,” I say as we return to the crew door.

“All vital stats are normal. How do you guys feel?” the Surface asks.

“Good to go,” Larson says.

“Hooyah,” I answer.

“Proceed with internal survey,” the Surface orders.

“Aye,” I say.

I dim my light and look directly into Larson’s faceplate. His eyes are wide and can’t hide the fear the way his mechanical voice does. “Are you ready for this?”

Before the dive, I had warned him. There would be corpses. It’s the nasty detail of this type of work. He is not new to death. Most of us serve as public safety divers at some point in our careers. There, it is our duty to bring lost souls to rest. He told me once about a little girl he had pulled from the intake of a sewage treatment facility. She had fallen into the river, drowned and become lodged downstream. No, he is no stranger. But in the down deep, it is different. With the jungle drums pounding in your ears, the pressure pushing in, the blackness enveloping you, and the ghosts taunting you; you can’t know for sure how you will react.

Larson bobs his head. “Hooyah.”

I turn back to the penetration. Dark tentacles of imagined demons skirt the edge of my vision as I stare at the mouth of the cave.  Why is only this hatch blown? If you were going to evacuate, why wouldn’t you go out the jump door? Is the fate you are escaping so grim that you would risk hitting the prop or the wing?

I can feel the madness creeping ever closer. Even the Master Chief sees ghosts.

Larson pulls himself in through the door and disappears. I shake my demons free and follow behind.

“Oh fuck . . . fuck . . . fuck,” I hear Larson’s mechanical voice echoing in my head.

“Larson, your heart rate is through the roof. Get it under control!” the Surface screams through the lines.

 “Chief . . . Chief. I’m narcn’ hard man,” Larson’s voice echoes inside my helmet, eerily calmed by the mechanical tuner.

I push in deeper and stand next to him. Our lights cast ethereal shadows in front of us. My jaw drops and I have to fight the urge to vomit.

“Help me Chief I’m narcn’.”

There are corpses strewn throughout the cabin. I count four; there may be more but our lights limit our view. They half float, half lay on the aluminum deck material. They are mangled; they look as if they have been torn apart. One is missing an arm; another’s eyes have been ripped from their sockets. Entrails, crushed by the pressure to lean ropes, have been ripped from the cavities of all those visible. I have retrieved bodies from plane crashes before and never have I seen injuries like these. Nor does the damage look to be done postmortem by the creatures of the deep looking for a meal. In fact the crabs, hagfish, and other scavengers are conspicuously missing from such a feast.

From the corner of my eye, I see Larson fall to his hands and knees in the slow motion of the deep. I watch as his body convulses and I know he has vomited into his helmet. Part of me envies him, but my brain knows the results could be deadly and my training won’t allow it.

“Chief, something’s wrong . . .  they shouldn’t be moving. Why are they moving?” echoes in my helmet.

I step further into the cabin. The gruesome corpses are not the only casualties of this flight. This was a transport flight and on either bulkhead is a row of soldiers, strapped into their flight seats. There must be at least sixty of them. Why didn’t they try to get out? When the plane went down, why didn’t they evacuate? Why did they just sit here and watch as the cabin filled with water to take them to a grave in the South China Sea?

But for all my questions, Larson’s is the ultimate. Constrained by their harnesses, the corpses writhe and move as if reaching for me. They seem to be pulling at their restraints, trying to get to me. Their arms are all outreached and their fingers claw at the water. They’re eyes are black, stained with the blood of their burst eardrums and capillaries. Their jaws snap open and closed.

“Blackman to Surface. Something is wrong. I . . . I don’t know if you guys have fucked with the gas or something, but this dive is over,” I say and turn back to Larson.

“Surface confirms abort, return to the bell.”

I pull the diver to his feet and guide him out of the wreck. There is no sprint, no mad dash. In the down deep movement is without urgency, without emotion. We retrace our umbilicals back to the bell and we climb inside for the ride to the surface.

“Chief, did you see what I was seeing? They were moving, like they were trying to get at us.”

The Surface did not confirm what they had or hadn’t seen through the video feed. They were silent on the status of our gas. They were silent on our neurological outputs. I have known narcosis. I have danced with her treacherous creations. But never have I shared the same hallucination with another diver. Never had it been so controlled, so consuming, yet so sane. I had not been lost to the madness and I had been able to easily and rationally walk away from the vision. That was not narcosis.

“Don’t worry about it, kid. Just the ghosts of the deep,” I lie.

Copyright © 2012 by Leigh Fischer