At the bottom of the Mariana Trench, Death is a misplaced pinprick, a hairline crack. Owen hears Death tapping at the exterior, testing the structural integrity of the habitat. Irregular ticking echoes through the lab, as if the light deprivation has thrown an invisible clock off-kilter, altering the nature of time itself. Days pass in a blink. A second stretches to eternity while Owen listens to Death searching, hunting for a way in.
A loud creak makes Owen jump. The beaker of solvent slips from his fingers to shatter on the floor, and for an instant he can feel the frigid water coursing through the broken porthole. He can taste the salt. Before 16,000 PSI can crumple the habitat like a tin can, Nora looks up from her data analysis and says, “Would you relax? You’re putting me on edge.”
The habitat has no portholes. Embarrassed, Owen cleans up the broken glass. He moves to the freezer to collect another specimen, to restart the extraction process. Discodermia nox—a new species of sea sponge—has lured Owen 11,034 meters underwater. It produces a specialized form of discodermolide, far more effective at combating cancer than Discodermia dissoluta. Owen hates the sponge for bringing him here, but he hates himself more for not discovering it sooner, years before he met his wife. Before Cassandra’s cells turned traitor and Death came to claim her.
“Owen,” Nora says. Her tone makes Dylan’s head whip up; the sealed containers of harvested discodermolide rattle as he sets the storage cube aside. “You’re making a mess. Take the night off—rest. And eat something, for Chrissake. You’re skin and bones.”
Owen shuffles from the lab without argument, down the short tube to the living quarters, bypassing the galley. He’s not hungry or tired. He paces as much as his cramped compartment will allow: three steps to the bunk squashed against the bulkhead, three steps back to the thick steel hatch. When he finally sits on the bed to remove his shoes, a trickle of fine sand forms a tiny pile on the floor. Owen frowns into his left shoe. He kneels to inspect the pile.
The particles are soft, flesh-toned.
His right shoe is empty. Owen peels off his socks. He brushes his left heel and stares at the dusting of particles coating his palm in alarm. He sweeps the pale sand onto a square of paper and folds it, setting the sample aside for a time when the lab is vacant.
All the while, Death ticks and taps.
Begging to come inside.
As Owen suspected, the particles are not sand. He peers through a microscope at the miniscule clusters of human cells—not flakes, but misshapen granules. Elsewhere in the habitat, Nora and Dylan are engaged in a game of cards. A burst of laughter straightens Owen’s spine. He backs away from the microscope, puzzled.
Because he can still feel the paper against his skin, the folded square containing the sample from his shoe. A meter of space stands between him and the slide on the microscope’s stage, yet the cold press of glass generates a full-body chill. The gooseflesh stippling his arms appears flatted. A headache throbs in his skull. Wincing, Owen gropes his nose to be sure the cartilage is still standing erect. The ache in his head intensifies.
Owen removes the slide and lifts the cover. The pressure in his skull vanishes. As he scrapes the stained smear into the paper packet, a fine trail of cells pours from his sleeve onto the counter.
He doesn’t know why he ignites the Bunsen burner, doesn’t understand the force compelling him to pinch the fleshy sand between his fingers and sprinkle the granules into the flame, when every instinct is screaming at him to conserve the crumbling cells. He’s never self-harmed before, too afraid of the pain. But since she died, not a day has passed without the temptation presenting itself in a thousand different—
Owen chokes. It is not the sensation of self-immolation that sucks the air from his lungs, but the realization that he cannot recall the name of the woman he loves. The physical agony hits a half-second later. He barely feels it, combing trenches through his memory in search of…
He breathes a sigh of relief through gritted teeth. The name is gone, but her face remains: bright eyes, like pools of liquid amber; round cheeks; thin lips, prone to part in a mischievous grin; a narrow gap between her two front teeth. Her, her. Her name is…
A flower, maybe.
Owen adds the remaining sand to the paper packet. He longs to seal the cells in a plastic bag but fears he’ll suffocate. The persistent chill prickling his skin necessitates a careful sweep of the counter and floor, to locate the errant cells, but the search only scatters more of Owen around.
A name from mythology. Roman? No…
Owen removes a bag of rubber bands from a drawer. He dons a pair of gloves, then winds the bands tight around the cuffs of his blue jumpsuit, wrists and ankles. He’ll worry about his head later. Footsteps are approaching. Nora enters the lab, yawning.
“Tell me you haven’t been in here all night,” she says. While Nora sips her coffee, pulling a face at the bitter swill, Owen slips the paper packet into his pocket and nudges the Bunsen burner back into place with his elbow. “No,” he says, “just got here a few minutes ago.”
Morning already? Owen shivers from the lingering chill. Somewhere in the lab, he’s still drifting freely.
A knock sounds, ringing off the habitat’s shell.
One, two. Three-four-five. Six.
Coffee sloshes over the rim of Nora’s cup. She curses. Owen says, “You heard that?”
Nora scowls up at the metal dome shielding them from the weight of the Pacific Ocean. “Detritus, probably.”
The knock comes again.
One, two. Three-four-five. Six. Followed by an insistent clicking. Owen pictures his wife’s manicured nails drumming the outside of his office door, preceding her entrance with the meal he missed, lost in his work. Too engrossed in the depths to treasure—goddamnit, what is her name?
“Owen? You okay?” His wife cocks her head, listening.
Again, the knock sounds. Owen blinks and Nora is back. “It’s probably nothing. I wouldn’t worry,” she says.
“Awfully deliberate sounding, for nothing.”
Nora nods, slowly. “Mm-hm. Sounds like a piece of equipment came loose. Dylan, go check the control room.”
Dylan stops short in the doorway and grunts his consent, grumbling as he switches directions. He returns from the control room and says, “Nothing I can see from in here. Comms and sensors are all functioning.”
Nora’s scowl deepens. “Hull integrity?”
“One hundo. I could send a divebot out…” Dylan tilts his head, mimicking Nora and Owen. “I don’t hear—”
The knocking rings through the lab.
“Huh,” Dylan says. “Almost sounds like the secret code my brother and I—” A shadow clouds his face. “Never mind. Can we just ignore it?”
Owen cringes. Nora catches the twitch and her expression softens. She says, “I won’t be able to concentrate if that keeps up. It’s already driving me crazy.” She glances at her watch, lips counting off the seconds in silence. “There it is again. Every thirty-nine seconds.”
“What the hell?” Dylan glances at Owen, cowering in the corner. “What’s up with you? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Owen’s toes are squirming in his shoes. Curling fine sand into tiny piles.
“Fine,” Dylan huffs, “I’ll send the divebot out. But you’re covering my station, Nora. I’m not getting docked for wasting time on this.”
“I’ll go with you,” Owen says. “I’d like to watch, if that’s okay?”
Dylan raises an eyebrow at the rubber bands cinching Owen’s cuffs, then jerks his chin at the door, as if to say: Whatever, man. Let’s get this over with.
While Dylan is busy prepping the machine, Owen dips a hand into his pocket. He smears a dusting of cells across the divebot’s skin.
Dylan and Owen evacuate. The launch begins.
Owen watches, tense, as the chamber floods. The exterior aperture spins open, releasing the divebot into the abyss.
It feels like drowning.
He regains consciousness in the medbay, a compartment just large enough to accommodate the horizontal medpod aligned against one wall. Nora turns sideways as she enters, stooping to avoid bumping her head. No space is wasted in the habitat. She taps the medpod’s console, checks Owen’s vitals. When she notices he’s awake, she says, “How long has it been since you last ate?”
Owen tries to shrug the question off, but the restraints hold him secure against the gel cushion. He’s exposed, stripped down to his yellowed underwear. Nora doesn’t ask when he last showered—not that the absorbent powder they dry-scrub over their skin resembles anything close to hot water. If he used either method to bathe now, he’d likely disintegrate. The exfoliation of the powder would sand his grainy flesh down to the bone, while the pressurized spray of a shower would wash him away entirely, like waves crashing over a sandcastle. Owen’s eyes pop wide. He answers Nora with a question of his own: “Where’s my jumpsuit?”
“I comm-linked with the surface,” Nora says. Her short dark hair is a riot of frizzy tufts, standing on end, as if she’s been yanking on it. She won’t make eye contact. “They’re sending a shuttle down at the end of the week to retrieve the bulk of the frozen sponges, along with the discodermolide we’ve extracted.”
She pauses. And then: “Owen, they’re pulling us off the project…automating the hab. Dylan and I will stay on for a few weeks, to help facilitate the switch. But once the new tech is in place, we’re out on our asses. They’re bringing down more divebots to harvest the sponges. They plan to use the hab for storage. An AI-guided shuttle will transfer the stock to the surface for factory extraction. Big pharma’s drooling over—”
“Why now? What changed?” Owen sees Nora flinch. “What did you tell them?”
He can feel Nora’s pulse quicken. Did she touch him without gloves on? Owen’s mind is detached, numb. He can’t stop shivering.
“You’re hypothermic,” Nora says. “Dehydrated, anemic. You haven’t been taking care of yourself.”
“Don’t change the subject. What did you tell them, Nora? Was it about the dive, the knocking?” Owen listens, but he can’t hear anything over the beeping of the vitals monitor. “What did you see, Nora?”
“My—” Nora coughs. She scrubs her mouth with the back of her wrist, rubs the purplish suitcases under her eyes. And it’s as though her mind has reset, replacing her haunted expression with one of morose determination. “Nothing, Owen. There’s nothing out there. Look, I didn’t want to do this here, but…they told me about your psych eval. They know you fudged the results somehow. You have no business being down here, not so soon, after Cassandra—”
Nora’s eyes narrow. “Your wife?”
Owen searches through memories set adrift, like the cells he released into the abyss. He touches the image of a woman with sunlight in her hair, white lace cascading over her curves. The sound of her laughter is excruciating. His mind recoils, seeking the cathartic sensory deprivation of the ocean. But his cells are drifting far from the habitat, farther from each other. The effect is fading, leaving only the pain.
Another memory surfaces: a woman hollowed out, cored, like a once-shiny apple riddled with worms. Her eyes are dull, her lips cracked. She screams as if her lungs are filled with broken glass.
Thirty-nine seconds he waited, after the screaming finally ceased.
Thirty-nine seconds before he gathered the nerve to enter her bedroom, despite the urging of the hospice nurse.
But she was already gone. Cass…
Owen’s hands clench into fists. Her name is escaping him. His fingers are bony sticks, divesting particles like dandelion seeds onto the gel cushion. Soon, there will be nothing left of him.
“My wife is dead,” Owen says. It’s the first time he’s spoken the words aloud. Another Owen completed the mandatory psych eval, an identical shell—the same version of himself responsible for paying the kid next door to hack the mainframe and tweak the results. The same shell that rode the shuttle underwater, away from a world he was no longer fit to inhabit.
But now the shell is decaying, revealing the quivering meat within.
“You said you and Dylan are staying on,” Owen says. “What about me?”
“You’ll be leaving with the shuttle. I’m sorry, Owen.” Nora pats his fist. She wipes her hand on her jumpsuit after. Owen wonders if she’s aware of the cleansing gesture, or if the motion is subconscious. “It’ll be good for you.”
“But it’s my discovery—my project. You can’t just throw me away.”
“Our project,” Nora says. And Owen thinks, Ah ha. Here it is—the excuse she’s been waiting for. “It’s not up to me, Owen. They never would’ve let you come down here, if they knew.”
“But if it were up to you? You’d have the project all to yourself—you and Dylan. All the funding and the credit, yours.”
Nora looks at Owen as if he’s slapped her. “They’re getting rid of all of us, Owen. You’ll get your credit, but the rest is for the machines.” Her gaze shifts to the bulkhead. “We were never meant to stay here. It’s not healthy, being this isolated.”
The next morning, Nora releases Owen from the medpod. She confiscates his keycard, revoking his lab access, but spares him the indignity of locking him in his quarters. Owen’s free to wander the confines of the habitat. He peppers every crack and corner with the cells showering off his bones, until he feels more like the structure holding back the ocean than the pathetic creature trapped inside. His jumpsuit hangs in baggy folds. He paces, restless.
Death clicks outside, ticking and tapping, matching his stride. Snatching up the deflated cells floating beyond the habitat and devouring them, one by one. Memories blink out in Owen’s mind, like dying stars.
The resulting void is intoxicating.
When Dylan and Nora turn in for the night, Owen creeps into the control room to access the footage from the dive.
A spotlight crawls over the convex shell of the habitat. Particles swirl in the beam. As the light advances, a fluttering shadow retreats, trailing stringy tendrils over the curved horizon.
The divebot crests the apex of the habitat and descends into perpetual night. The spotlight probes the darkness. Bubbles of liquid sulfur and carbon dioxide rise from nearby vents in the ocean floor. Bioluminescent comb jellies flicker in the distance.
The camera jiggles, as if struck from the side. The divebot’s propellers whir, attempting to correct course, to dislodge the anchoring force dragging it down, away from the habitat. The camera rotates. Skeletal appendages blur at the periphery, then leap into focus.
A bulbous mass fills the frame.
Teeth like pins. Glinting amber eyes.
Owen jerks back from the screen, uttering a breathless cry. He replays the video from start to finish, seven times. Then, he pulls up the audio log of Nora’s comm-link with the surface. He’s surprised to find Dylan participated. Usually, Dylan avoids all contact beyond their team of three, preferring the company of his machines.
“Mariana Station to Pacific Base Six,” Nora says. Her voice is high and reedy, stripped of the steely composure she wears like armor. “Requesting immediate evacuation.”
Nora’s voice climbs another octave. “Hello? Pacific Base Six, please respond.”
“There’s someone down here with us,” Dylan interjects. Nora hisses, attempting to shush him, but he plows ahead. “Someone’s outside, trying to get in. They killed my divebot, tore it apart.”
“Dylan, stop—” A scuffle unfolds in the background. “They’re going to think we’re losing—”
“We have to get out of here,” Dylan shouts. “Shit—hello? Is anyone listening?”
“You shouldn’t be in here,” Dylan says. Owen swivels toward the door, startled. When he glances back at the control console, the screen is dark, smeared with shed granules around the edges, as if he tried to climb through the monitor. “What are you doing, Owen?”
“I needed a change of scenery.” Owen attempts to punctuate the remark with a smile—a hideous, ill-fitting thing that itches like plaster. “Not much to do, now that Her Highness has locked me out of my own lab.”
“Yeah…” Dylan scratches his scalp, then scrutinizes his nails. “Sorry about that. It was just supposed to be a routine check-in, but when Nora mentioned how jumpy you’ve been, some guy from HR must’ve gone digging through your file. They pinged us back immediately, told us to lock you in your quarters until the shuttle arrives.”
“So you’ve come to—what? Chain me to a pipe?”
“Nah, man. Nora fought them. She said it was bad enough, shouldering us all off the project. She wasn’t gonna add insult to injury by caging you like an animal. They settled on a compromise: No lab access…no control room.” Dylan spreads his hands apologetically, as if to say: Please don’t make me ask.
Owen forces his rigid muscles to relax. There’s enough of him strewn across and beneath the console that he’ll only be leaving in spirit.
And he’ll be back. When the time is right.
Forgetful, sloppy Dylan. Hundreds of qualified applicants were passed over in Dylan’s favor, thanks to good old-fashioned nepotism. The thought makes it easier to palm the keycard Dylan left on the console. Owen slides the card into his jumpsuit sleeve as he rises from the chair. “Fair enough.”
Dylan nods in appreciation. “Thanks, man. I’m glad shit’s not, like, awkward between us.”
As he exits the control room, Owen bumps into Dylan. Particles burst from Owen’s casual grin, powdering the shorter man’s shoulders like dandruff. Dylan closes the hatch behind them. The deadbolt thuds into place automatically. The wall console blatts, flashing a red lock symbol. Owen tenses in anticipation.
But Dylan doesn’t notice the missing keycard. He’s distracted. His eyes rove over the ceiling. Owen can feel the shame burning in Dylan, like a spiking fever. Perhaps the proximity to the control room is bringing back unpleasant memories—calling out for Pacific Base Six the way a hysterical child cries out for his daddy, insisting there are monsters in the closet.
“I’m sorry I missed the dive,” Owen says. “Did you figure out what was knocking?”
“Knocking?” Dylan rubs his mouth with the back of his hand.
“Never mind. Anything out there?”
“Just the usual.”
Dylan’s heart rate tells Owen he’s lying.
Nora’s hammering her fists on the hatch. The sound is muffled, the blows ineffective. Dylan shouts for Owen to unlock the damn door. Secure inside the control room, Owen discards the trio of keycards dangling from their tangled lanyards. Stealing the other two cards was simple: a dribble of liquid sedative from the medbay in Nora’s coffee, and she sank into a peaceful slumber, hunched over the table in the galley. Dylan must have woken her.
Owen’s lipless smile glimmers in the lights from the console. Spreading himself through the habitat was a mistake, one he plans to correct with the pointed end of the fire axe propped against the bulkhead. Allowing the shuttle to remove him now would only fracture his consciousness. Part of him would surface, but the majority would be left below, encased in a metal coffin. Whiling away eternity with the machines sent to replace him.
Destroying the habitat will release Owen—all of him.
And yet, he feels conflicted. Uncertain.
Destroying the habitat will only delay production for a year or two at most, but it’s more time than she was given, when the doctor delivered her diagnosis. Owen has forgotten his wife’s name and face, her scent, her birthday. But he remembers the timeline: Three months. Six, if we’re lucky.
The truth was closer to one.
“I’ve never been lucky,” Owen croaks. He swipes at the tears carving tracks through his eroding cells. The bones of his hand scrape against the exterior wall of the habitat.
Something heavy strikes the hatch like a battering ram, followed by a string of curses.
“Get to the lifeboat,” Owen says. He taps the console, initiating the emergency lockdown sequence for the segregated compartment where his team will await evacuation. He’d planned to spring the external hatches, but a system override requires approval from the surface. The axe will suffice. It feels right, that he should struggle to achieve his goal.
To earn his freedom.
Nora’s tone changes from demanding to pleading. “Owen, please, think about what you’re doing. Think of all the people you’ll hurt—not just me and Dylan. Think of the patients, people like Cassandra.”
The name dredges up a memory. A shadow, fluttering through the deep.
“You have thirty-nine seconds,” he shouts. Not to Dylan and Nora, though he hopes they’ll heed his warning.
No, he’s inviting Death to knock again.
“Just once,” Owen says, hefting the axe. There are no more voices outside the hatch.
Owen tilts his bare skull toward the ceiling, listening.
Waiting, as the seconds count down.