The votes were equal in my Facebook poll so I flipped a coin — ta-da — here’s your underwater laboratory tale! Let me know what you think and look forward to the next Facebook poll!
x P.L. McMillan
Jilly opened her eyes. Her forehead was cold. She reached up and wiped a hand across it, found it wet. Staring at the gray pipe that ran along the width of her quarters, Jilly pressed her palm to her lips, tasted salt. The old woman sat up, listening to her joints creak and pop. Outside, beyond the muslin curtain that separated her bunk from the corridor, she heard the low giggle of a child trying to be quiet. Jilly took the two steps needed to reach her tiny metal locker. She pulled out her uniform, climbed into the jumpsuit carefully, and zipped up.
As always, part of her morning ritual was to press an ear against the station’s cold, slimy wall, and listen to the ship’s moans as it strained against the deep ocean currents. Jilly rubbed her upper arms, trying to ward away a chill that seemed never to fade. Everything about this underwater station was just below the point of true comfort. Since the industrial water heater broke and was half-hazardly repaired, the showers could never get above room temperature and room temperature (as controlled by the water pipes that ran through the entirety of the station) was a chill 55 degrees Fahrenheit everyday.
Jilly’s wrist implant beeped, alerting her that her shift was starting. Despite being in her late sixties, she still worked. Everyone did. There was no room on the station for relaxing, for rest. The underwater station, nicknamed the Haven, was only two decades old, but it was already breaking down. It had been meant to support its refugee population for at least a century. Jilly should know, she’d helped plan and design the Haven.
Jilly pulled away from the wall with a sigh. A drop of water fell, landed on her neck, and slid down her spine. She shivered and jerked her head up to stare at the dull gray ceiling. She couldn’t tell where the water was coming from. The whole room smelled briny, metallic, mouldy.
She pushed open the curtain and almost stepped on the small child sitting on the metal bar grating that served as the floor. The boy was playing with an empty cup and rubber ball, throwing the ball against the wall and catching it in the cup. He looked up at her with stern eyes, older than his years. Jilly smiled at him, gave him a little wave. He turned away and went still, not playing, seemingly waiting for her to leave before resuming. Jilly turned and walked away. She navigated the turns and corridors without really paying attention, rubbing her elbows, her wrists, her neck; trying to massage away the daily aches that lingered in her joints.
Other crewmembers passed by. Jilly nodded at them and they nodded back. No one spoke. All the uniforms were gray, the walls were gray, the pipes were gray. Even the people seemed to have been drained of colour from lack of true sunlight.
Jilly was thrown to the left as the station shuddered. The dim lights flickered and went out. Somewhere, deeper inside the station, a cry rang out and was cut short. The lights returned. Jilly pressed a hand to her heart, which beat rapidly in her chest – like the heart of a trapped hare. The woman fully expected to die here, thousands of leagues under the oppressing sea. She thought of the boy in the hallway, a Haven-born child. The cold, clinical part of her was curious as to what queer side effects might develop as the child aged. The part of her that had been a mother – once long ago – shuddered at the idea of a child growing up having never seen the sun, never having touched soft, dewy grass, never having felt the wind on their face.
She continued on her way. The core room was at the very centre, and very bottom, of the underwater station. As she descended deeper, Jilly’s ears strained painfully before adjusting with a pop. Soon she passed out of the common corridors – the halls that connected the living quarters, the mess halls, the shared lavatories, the barren playrooms, severe school rooms, the echoing and freezing gym hall, the shared library, and common areas. Those sections had been added on after. The original structure had existed for three years before it had been recommissioned out of the Baltic sea and expanded into the Haven it was now.
Jilly came to the bulkhead door that separated the large general population area and the smaller laboratory. There were four doors, at the cardinal points, and all were locked, requiring biometric permissions to enter. She pressed her thumb to the little pad at waist height to the left of the door. Her print was scanned and the pad chirped cheerfully.
“Welcome, Chief Bio-Engineer Jillian Perch,” the robotic female voice intoned and the bulkhead door squealed against its rusting bearings as it opened.
Jilly stepped inside and began the short walk to the middle-most room. This older part of the structure was rusty and smelled heavily of brine. Her soft shoes crunched in the salt that layered the metal floor. She didn’t pass anyone on her way to the lab, less than half a dozen people had access to this area anymore.
“We used to be thirty,” Jilly said out loud and then cringed as her voice echoed harshly back at her.
There was only one door to the lab, which also required a biometric read. It chirped again after Jilly pressed her thumb against it.
The other four were already there. The station moaned again, Jilly could almost swear that she saw the walls bulging inward for a moment before they settled back.
“It’s happening more often now,” Kristoff said, sitting in a torn-up office chair and leaning forward on his cane.
The lights flickered. In the brief darkness, the five were illuminated by the blinking field of buttons, dials, screens, and gauges that made up the station’s heart: the core computer. Jilly could hear Annette’s laboured breathing. She was the eldest of them all and slowly dying of the cancer that ate away at her uterus. It wouldn’t be long now for Annette.
Robert, his wiry white hair tied back with an elastic, was hunched over the monitoring screens. Jilly joined him there and looked for the numbers she was curious about.
“We are losing pressure in the western living quarters,” she said, pointing a yellowed nail at a blinking orange warning message.
“I know,” he replied.
“I think sea water is leaking in through the outer seams,” Jilly whispered.
Robert shrugged and didn’t say anything. Jilly walked away from him, moving along the circumference of the centre console, trailing her fingers over the buttons – some of which were defunct, malfunctioning, or their uses forgotten. At the opposite end of the lab, a giant aquarium sat, reinforced with bullet-proof glass and tripled-enforced with titanium. Where once the glass had been clean, the water clear, now everything was coated in a thick, slimy, oozing black growth. Thick, fibrous tendrils undulated against the glass, at times flickering with a phosphorescent sheen.
Jilly placed a hand against the glass, through which – despite its thickness – she could feel the sickly, fevered heat produced by the growth within. This was supposed to have been their saviour. The station groaned and, somewhere to the east, there was a fatal screeching as of something finally snapping. The screens behind Jilly lit up, or at least the ones that still worked did, and flashed up a breach warning for the eastern living quarters.
Jilly turned and stared at her fellows. The five elder scientists studied each others’ faces.
“We could shut the pressure doors at the end of the section and preserve the rest of the station,” she said.
“For how long? The Haven was built too quickly, its quality never tested before we retreated down here,” said Annette.
Jilly wondered if Annette had always been a nihilist or if the cancer had done it to her.
“The escape pods,” Jilly said.
“There’s nothing to return to. You know that,” Robert said.
“Do they not deserve a chance to try?”
“A quick death by the crushing pressure of these depths is a much more merciful death than what would await them on the surface thanks to that,” spoke Zara, the youngest of the five, as she nodded towards the aquarium at Jilly’s back.
“So, we give up then,” Jilly’s voice was cold, cutting.
The other four looked down, in shame perhaps, or disinterest.
“We are supposed to be protecting them, acting as their wards. We are supposed to be finding a solution,” Jilly’s voice rose.
Robert looked up at her again, over the offensive artificial lights of the console.
“There’s no curing what we did, Jillian. We’ve been trying for twenty years and have found nothing. Our machines are breaking down, our bodies are breaking down, and soon there won’t be anyone left to try any more and the human race will drown here, under the waves,” he said.
“Or worse, run out of food and starve, eating each other like condemned rats,” Zara said.
“This is merciful,” Annette added.
They didn’t wait for her to concede. The four went to the main console. Robert began typing. Jilly could only assume he was planning on opening the outer-most pressure doors, allowing the ocean to penetrate the Haven and drown all within. The screens above flashed a warning, painting their faces in crimson light, as it asked them to confirm their decision. Robert stabbed his finger against a button and a short countdown began. The four stood, watching the screen, holding each others’ frail, age-spotted hands. Kristoff looked over at her.
“Join us, Jilly. You don’t have to be alone in this,” he said.
Jilly turned from him and stepped back to the aquarium. She pressed herself against the warm glass – it felt as warm as a human body – and stretched out her arms.
Around her, the station-wide speakers began to blare a warning for an evacuation. It was cut short abruptly – disabled by one of the four, probably Robert.
“Are you there, baby? Can you hear me?” Jilly asked.
Behind her, a deep rumbling grew, rising to a deafening roar. The entire lab began to quiver, to shake, to tear itself apart as the external pressures beyond its walls began to mount.
“I only wanted to save you. I only wanted to save everyone. I didn’t know. We couldn’t have known,” Jilly whispered to the glass.
Under her left fingertips, Jilly traced the worn-down lettering of the plaque that was bolted next to the aquarium.
“Eve,” Jilly said, thinking of a small, delicate red-headed child as warm in her arms as the aquarium was against her skin. “Eve, I’m sorry.”
The lab door burst. Jilly did not turn. The water rushed in, Jilly closed her eyes.