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A submarine crew will find way more than darkness in the depths of the sea.
Hidden In The Deep
I wake up in total blackness. For a moment, I just lie there, still as a summer day. I let myself believe that when I turn on the light, I won’t be in my barren, dingy cabin aboard a ship hiding in the darkest corner of the ocean deep. A notification chimes on the utility patch adhered to my bare neck, and the lights click to a soft glow, illuminating the same hard steel box I’ve been living in for the past 782 days.
Stroking my whiskers irritably, I search for a holo-vid to lighten the gloom. On command, my patch projects a much younger version of myself frolicking about with my mother. On the surface. Under the sun. Did the world still look like that up there? Were we really that happy once? […]
[…] It’s amazing what a couple years in the depths will do to you.
With a sigh, I touch my patch and cancel the vid, calling up my agenda visual instead. I’m on reconnaissance today. Not my favorite, but there are worse duties. I slap on a nutrition patch above my utility and head out into the corridor. I pause, debating on where to spend my last free hour before my shift. The electric lights buzz as I breathe in the musty air, my mood still sour. Then, I turn right towards the recreation area.
The meditation room is the friendliest space on the ship, which isn’t saying much. Colorful fabrics and rugs drape the grey walls and floor, dampening the omnipresent vibrations of the engine. Golden solar bars line the ceilings, shining their almost natural light down on the denizens of the HX sub. Vas is already there, settled in a corner, and I claim the cushion next to him.
“Good morning, Jul.”
“In a pleasant mood today, I see.”
I grunt again. “What’s there to be pleasant about?”
“I hear we’re heading to the shallows to recharge our solar cells.” Vas lean toward me. “They say we may even get time hull-side.”
I soften ever so slightly. Every now and then in shallow waters, command would let us don deep-suits and float among the sea creatures. Sometimes, on clear days, the sun would even reach her fingers down through the waves to tease us. Not the same as going to the surface of course, but not as risky either. At least you could escape the tin can, if only for a short while.
I sigh. “Better than nothing.”
We linger in companionable silence for a while longer, letting our ennui and cynicism drain away into the cloth and stuffing like a lanced pustule. My thoughts meander back to my mother. Was she still out there somewhere? Herded into a crowded camp or caged in a lab? Perhaps if I concentrated hard enough, my thoughts could escape the depths and reach her somehow. Comfort her.
My patch chimes, bringing me back to the sub. I sigh again, deflating a little, but the bitterness has gone out of it. Mind cleared to a serviceable state, I finally rise to tend my shift.
The whir and clutter of surveillance control stand in stark contrast to peaceful meditation. Holomaps grow out of every wall with processors purring within them. The map on the left depicts the ship itself, the immediate exterior as well as internal rooms and halls, because of course, you still couldn’t depend on your own team, even at the end of the world.
Luckily, Bon’s been assigned to that miserable monotony today. Instead, I’m monitoring one of the external networks, connected to the last of the world’s remaining infrastructure the Vun haven’t managed to destroy yet.
While some among the crew shout for sabotage and rescue missions, the commander continues to prioritize the need to understand our enemy before we strike. So for now, we hide, surveil, and survive. For obvious reasons, we don’t have many personnel, so my reconnaissance sector is broad, and I enjoy the freedom to scan where I wish, recording my observations. My patch links directly with the holograms, so I can flick through the scenes briskly.
Now that they’ve killed or captured the majority of the population, the hulking creatures move through our cities with impunity. The Vun are unsightly things with many appendages, strange orifices, and disgusting excretions, but their destructive efficiency is staggering. They subject our people to experimentation and violence while destroying our landmarks and history with one sweeping hand.
I try to avoid those depressing scenes, instead focusing on their daily lives. How do they nourish themselves and interact? What motivates them? Where did they come from? Through these sessions and intensive study, I’ve actually even started to pick up some of their words. I hate them—yes. But, I am also fascinated. It wasn’t so long ago that an alien incursion was a fantastic speculation. Now here we are, living the nightmare.
Nearby, our section lead, Shem, nudges Bon. “Are you awake over here?”
He grumbles sleepily, his movements sluggish. I can hardly blame him, internal surveillance is the worst.
“We can’t have anyone making off with extra nutrition patches,” Shem teases, gazing up at the holo’s.
“Perhaps we can find someone to spy on.”
Then something changes, and her body tenses.
“Wait.” She taps Bon again.
“Seriously, what’s that?”
Bon shifts his gaze. “What’s what?”
I turn to see Shem pointing to a dot in the minimized holo at the tail of the ship, near the auxiliary engine. “That.”
Bon enlarges the images to magnify the bulky dark shapes gliding down the hallway.
We know what they are. We’ve been watching them for years, but still, fear impales us.
This is impossible.
Shem smacks her patch to call the commander while I sit there, transfixed. For 782 days, the HX has hidden us from harm, but in a single instant of carelessness, the Vun have crawled right under our skin. Had I really resented those years of safety?
Bon stares blankly at the hologram, rigid as stone, as more and more black figures blot the holo. So, still numb, I tap my patch and say the magic words: Breach. Breach. Breach.
We’re under attack.
Alarms blare and lights flash as everyone jolts into action, their training taking over. “Escape pods. Get to the escape pods!” Shem shouts.
I only reach the door before the power is cut and we are left in the darkness. Standard procedure, I remind myself. The invaders rely mostly on sight, so this is to our advantage. We know the ship and can feel our way to safety.
Still, the pitch black is unnerving, as if the hull has been stripped away and we are existing in a pocket of air in the deep. Ready to burst at any minute.
Shem leads the way with Bon sandwiched in-between us, shell-shocked by some deadly mix of guilt and fear—useless as a child. Every corner we turn, I jump at the brush of other evacuees darting this way and that. My patch is still connected to the ship’s communications, announcing each pod ejection. But, it also broadcasts the screams of shipmates as our defenders sacrifice themselves to give us time to escape.
At last, the three of us reach our assigned shuttle bay, but a yellow glow of the control panel spells bad news. It’s already been deployed. Panic erupts within me like a burst pipe. Our own crew has cut off our escape, sentencing us to our Vun executioners.
But Shem doesn’t humor despair, and she’s already speaking into her patch. “Any other pods still shipside?”
“We’re the last, but we’ve got room.” The voice is miraculously steady on the other end.
Shem is already reversing direction. “What sector?”
“Hold it for as long as you can.”
I think of the ship map. “But isn’t twelve close to—”
“We need to move fast,” Shem cuts in, launching down a different corridor.
We stumble over a fallen comrade in the dark. Shem’s patch glows for a quick second as she checks for life, but I look away—not wanting to recognize a lost friend. Moving forward, I silence my patch comm as we near the heart of the battle. My attention swivels, straining for any hint of alien sound, sight, or presence. Easing around a corner, Shem jerks back before signaling to reverse course. Starting to lose my bearings, I push Bon closer to Shem, in hopes she still knows where she’s going.
We pass a hall where the Vun are trussing up one our own. The screams of the captive sound like Vas, but I can’t be sure. Anxiety seizes me with needle-like claws, but they don’t notice as we slide by.
I try to beat the desperation that threatens to drown my thoughts. We have to be getting close.
Finally, we turn another corner and I can see the blue control panel. The door hisses open, and a shipmate waves wildly for us to hurry.
Hope thickens as we rush towards the door. Three more seconds… then two… then— Something shoots into my back and a jolt of electricity brings me crashing to the floor. Pain surges through my whole body.
Shem and Bon dash into the pod, slamming the door closed without me. No hesitation. The floor trembles as the pod rockets away from danger, away from death, away from me.
A forlorn knife guts me as I lie prostrate on the steel floor. She didn’t even pause. But I shouldn’t expect different. With so few of us still free, we have to save as many as we can.
The raiders approach to retrieve their prey. The Vun seem even bigger in person, hunched over their weapons as they stoop in our corridor. Frantically, I wiggle to right myself, terror overwhelming all else. They fling a voltage net over me, another shock bringing me to the edge of unconsciousness.
I can hear them speaking, but it is a rough oral language I’ve only begun to understand.
“Damn, we’ve been chasing these critters for years. I can’t believe we finally found’em.”
“Maybe we’ll get some shore leave when we get back to base.”
“Hell, I’ll settle for some celebratory Texas Fried Chicken at the chow hall.”
“I could go for that.”
As they near, I see myself in the reflection of their ocular visors—antenna quivering, vibrissae erect, beak ajar, and spines grey with terror. Nothing like that vibrant young Becaplahelen in the holo-vid this morning, or even the benumbed refugee that watched it. I am nothing but a jelly of fear now, the invaders have taken everything else.
The monster swings his meaty five-fingered appendage toward me once more, and everything goes black.
Hayley Reese Chow is a professional engineer by day with short and flash fiction featured or upcoming in Lite Lit One, The Drabble, Bewildering Stories, Teleport Magazine, and Rogue Blades Entertainment’s omnibus, AS YOU WISH!