I was part of Project Atlantis. Among the various scientific endeavors undertaken by the Russian government throughout the mid-late 20th century, underwater exploration was always kept quiet. Attempts had been made to source renewable energy, document new species, and of course explore new oceanic ecosystems that could perhaps hold the key to future human civilization.
I was among the lucky first. Chosen from a selection of cosmonauts, pilots, and obviously marine specialists. My task was to assist in the early development of oceanic vessels. My marine specialization and expertise in trench ecosystems made me an obvious fit.
The government, or to be more specific, the Ministry of Medium Machine-Building (MMMB), was fanatical about results. Results, results, and more results. Whether it was new algae or just a trench deeper than we had originally thought, we were always expected to produce positive justifications for why the budget should continue to support this endeavor. An ambitious aim with a modest budget, but regardless, failure was never an option.
We were the new frontier of the Sovetsky Soyuz, and with that, we carried the banner of Soviet might. Even if that meant planting the flag in a part of the planet that even the sun would not go to.
I am not supposed to go into too much detail about any of this. In fact, during our military training, we were constantly forewarned about the consequences of open-talk, as they put it. I still find myself constantly debating whether the good of truth outweighs my loyalty to the Soyuz. I feel like I owe it to my shipmates though. My loyalty to the Sovetsky Soyuz is unquestioning and I have come to believe that the ministries in question, specifically the ministry of nuclear development, have buried unfavorable research for budgetary increases. Thus, it is with loyalty to the Soviet I tell this, against the corruption of bureaucracy. I have made my decision to tell this story. I shall make no refrain from detail and my only omissions are that of memory, not of choice. As the Russian saying goes, Семь раз отмерь, один раз отрежь – Measure seven times, cut once.
Project Atlantis ‘Атлантида’ was set in motion with the aims to establish a living space on the precipice of one of a number of Oceanic Trenches. These living spaces were called Life Zones. They are self-sustained pods that can theoretically hold up to 6 people comfortably at any one time. Life Zones are secured to the seafloor beside the trenches. High powered beams emit constant vital information to High Command about water pressure, oxygen levels, and so forth. The pride and joy of the Operation Atlantis was the prototype, ‘Cask-Life’. It’s a Life-Zone on the precipice of the Kuril–Kamchatka Trench. Almost 8,500 meters to the seafloor and only a few meters from the trench wall.
The trench itself was another 10,000 meters deep. Into the abysses. You have not heard about it because you are not supposed to hear about it.
The Ministry of Medium Machine-Building (MMMB), held Cask-Life with great pride. The actual power and sustainability of the marine life vessel relied on volcanic activity from the Trench. The waters and volcanic eruptions were harnessed and repurposed for everything in the vessel. It was stable, running, and the three-man Soviet crew was expected to give daily assurances of its successes.
It was 1 of 7 original prototypes launched during Operation Atlantis. While two others have greenlit their success and stability, Cask-Life’s harnessing of volcanic activity as renewable energy made it special.
You will find books upon books re-affirming the failures of marine living but the truth is also bittersweet, For our three successful attempts at marine living, we also filled warehouses with crushed, decompressed, and damaged ‘Life-Zones’. Many of those were manned as well.
Warehouses and graveyards. Those are not in any books.
My first mission involved Cask-Life. Her automated vitals appeared to be stable; oxygen levels, core pressure, electricity, and so on. High Command had direct access to the diagnostics of the vessel but the reports, their daily expected liaisons with the crew had gone silent. Day after day nothing. The three individuals who had lived in Cask-Life were still alive and seemingly enough well. Carbon dioxide levels and oxygen levels were naturally balancing. The oxygen levels were unaltered but in terms of actual human contact, we were in the dark.
In other words, we knew three men were breathing down there. We knew three were down there.
Paranoia had already set in among High Command. Rumors of a mole began to spread around. A U.S covert was among the three and had turned our loyal soviets against us. But before the paranoia fire could be dispelled by rational debate, High Command had immediately ordered an exploratory mission to the non-abandoned but silent Cask-Life. I was among this mission. Everything was fine. Everything was by the plan. Until it wasn’t.
This is where my story must begin. If you want to know what happened to my comrades, to me, to the Cask-Life, and their crew then this is what truly happened in the depths of the Oceanic Trenches.
It was a cold, dark night in Petropavlovsk, the most westerly point in the Soyuz. Rain rattled the steel roof exteriors of the shipyard while the North Pacific Ocean relentlessly swept anything that wasn’t tied down across the wooden platforms.
The Kuril–Kamchatka trench was south of Petropavlovsk and by travel, it would take just over 2 days to get to the seafloor. Weapons were also stored, in the off chance that our mole theory was proven correct. I unloaded my belongings from the military transport and walked briskly towards the shipyard, coat turned up to shield the biting wind and rain. I, along with 2 others was to use a small three-man marine traveler and make the first break with Cask-Life. As I saw my two crew members idle around the vessel, I began smiling.
“Mikhail, you cyka!”, I launched forward and embraced my fellow crew member.
“Ah, fuck! Sergei, my friend, it’s been a while!”, Mikhail returned the embrace, “they managed to wrangle you into this as well. The Cask-Life! This is monumental”, his voice dipped as he realized that perhaps information should be kept as a need to know matter.
“This is Vlad, you have not met him, he’s medical division.”
Vladimir shot him a look.
“Shit, Vladimir I mean, sorry, anyway, this is Sergei, Vladimir.”, he pointed towards me.
I stuck out my hand and Vladimir grasped it and tightened his grip. I felt the blood leaving my hand as he let go. With no more than a grunt, he heaved his enormous body down the top hatch of the vessel and began reorganizing it in, what can only be said as, ‘his way’.
As I took in my surroundings I noticed a buzz about the place. Men in darkened suits and military spec vehicles were busying themselves around the yard. Two large machines were being tinkered at within a large warehouse.
Although, I could not make out much, the large doors of the Shipyard building was left ajar. Very few people I recognized. In fact, many faces I had never seen before.
Both Mikhail and Vladimir had been briefed and once a very formal readout of our mission was given, we joined Vladimir in our new home, “VILLA2”. A military officer of some esteem, at least by the shiny medals adorning his jacket would indicate, gave us an even briefer brief. It would take just under 2 days, no interruptions assumed, to reach Cask-Life. When we make contact with her crew, we were to make medical and technical surveys and to leave the following day. A short trip.
If injuries were sustained by the original crew we were to take them with us. If no injured were assumed, we were to immediately return and High Command would ‘deal with the insubordination’ in their own way. I didn’t want to think about that. We boarded the medium-sized vessel, that was marooned on the edge of the quiet shipyard.
Loud voices barked orders and with a whirl of noise and movement, the submersible was lowered by two heavy cranes. Mikhail, the chief engineer and crew captain of the VILLA2, began routine vitals and marine diagnoses. The top hatch was a double secured steel door with an air chamber for decompression and so once both were sealed the outside world was muffled to us three.
Green and blue lights lit up the board emitting an artificial hue in the control chamber The control board and the main chamber were connected by a small tunnel, large enough to squeeze through but none of us could stand upright in it. Sitting beside me in the main chamber was the recently acquainted Vladimir. An extraordinarily stoic man. Large and burly, cramped into this vehicle like a caged animal, no one would believe he was, in fact, a qualified nurse. Excuse me, ‘health specialist’.
Mikhail’s eyes never left the control board as he shouted orders.
“Vladimir, where is the UMT?”, Mikhail yelled, far too loudly for this vessel, “control put motion sickness tablets in it, get them. I don’t know what to expect, but I am sure none of us has been 8,000 meters under the sea”, he laughed.
Vladimir, saying not a word, heaved his large body towards the medical kit and removed 2 small wrapped bars. He threw one to the back of Mikhail’s head and towards me and then reclined back into his seat.
Conserving energy? I thought.
“Sergei, Sergei!”, Mikhail turned towards me, “As we lower, listen out for steel compression, this cyka may not be as enthusiastic for the water as we are.”
I looked over at Vladimir, now more or less asleep, and thought, “it better be.”
The creaking leviathan plunged into the cold ocean. Underneath the water, there was a serenity and calmness. We began our 8,500-metre descent towards Cask-Life.
Mikhail’s mechanistic expertise was impressive. I always respected his keen eye for machinery because he spent many hours of basic training modifying, re-adjusting, and in many ways improving Soviet mechanics. A wiry thin individual, he could always maneuver around engines picking them apart like an expert painter would his art. We had spent an inordinate amount of time in base camp for this mission, but when he left for specialized training in marine engineering I had not seen him until now. No different. Still the quick-witted Moscowian I had known and grown to care about. Seeing him there though, whizzing back and forth, it appeared as if he was engaged in a dance.
“You do not expect me to maneuver this by my lonesome do you, Sergei?, Mikhail threw me a smile, “because I will sail her right up to the Moskva river and be home for dinner!”
I laughed, “as if Zoya didn’t have enough to worry about Sergei, there’s a reason they sent you to the other side of the Sovetsky Soyuz!”
“And the reason I’m still here..?”, he said.
“The money?”, I smiled.
It felt comforting to be back with a familiar face. The brief moment of levity cooled my muscles as I reclined into my seat and reviewed the information given to us by High Command. Guiding VILLA2 wasn’t a task in itself. She had an automated gauge and beyond slight manual adjustments to the equilibrium of the vessel, we were heading straight towards Cask-Life. After 7 hours of slow descent in the darkness of the ocean, Vladimir had eventually woken from his hibernation and prepared three MREs (Military Rations, Meals: Ready To Eat). Tinned compressed meat of some sort, dry crackers, and black coffee with the standard sugar, milk, and broth. We had enough to last 3 round trips which would be luxurious if we had actually come to like the taste. Mikhail sat down beside us, adjusting his loosened shirt and began worrying his short black hair with a compact comb. Vladimir sat as if his shoulders were trying to embrace one another to the detriment of his chest and heart. His block clean-cut face looked chiseled from stone, although as I was about to find out, in terms of personality, I would wager a statue may just hold a conversation better.
Although Mikhail and I had shared memories and basic training with one another, the introduction of the plain and quiet Vladimir was neither a nuisance nor asset, he merely was.
Something I had pondered since descent, “the machines, and those men, who were they, Mikhail? The black suits, I didn’t recognize them from Command or training?”
Mikhail nodded, he understood exactly what I was alluding to, “I’ve been thinking of just that question since the drop.”
“Ministry of Culture and Nuclear Development”, Vladimir said.
“Ministry of Culture? The suits? What would they want with us, and why are they this far out from Moscow?”, I asked.
Vladimir darted Mikhail a look, shrugged his massive shoulders, and went back to his book, How The Steel Was Tempered.
I looked back to my friend, “Mikhail, what could they want from us? Surely they have more important things to be doing?”
“I stopped asking those questions when I realized the answers were not worth asking questions in the first instance”, he said coldly then looked down towards his meal. I knew what he meant. Questions breed subversion, and subversion is the fire for disloyalty. It had been ingrained in us since our training.
“Although Sergei, that building, did you see the construction near it? Two new warehouses. I was in Petropavlovsk during my specialized training, we were given the full spec for these beauties”, he banged the steel roof, “but since then two new warehouses and a control tower were built. Either my memory is going or some big construction has been going on.”
I looked puzzled, “no, that was my first time there, I just saw a lot of people moving some pretty heavy equipment in there. It’s a dead town though right Mikhail? Vlad?
“Vlad…imer is my name, not Vlad”, his eyes never left the book.
“Right, sorry, anyway, no I didn’t notice anything really Mikhail.”
In an unspoken but mutual agreement that line of inquiry was left there, unanswered. It was a strange paradox, we are trained to question, review, plan, and so forth. We were expert tools of the motherland yet we naturally, instinctively knew when to stop asking certain questions.
“Is it exciting no? The training, the regime, the routine, everything, for this”, Mikhail’s eye lit up. “I will be wearing the Ushakov if the mission is a successful one.”
“They’ll give you the Uskakov Mikhail when they make me First Secretary of the Union”, I said.
In a moment of genuine unanimity, we laughed, including Vladimir. It was brief, but I will not forget it.
We finished our MREs and we returned to our duties. As night drew in, at least from what the internal dials told us was night, we made preparations. The 5 portholes that gave a full view surrounding the VILLA2 offered no clue to our environment. It was only due to the sensors, and high tech that we could pinpoint where exactly we were, and where exactly we intended to go.
The fold-out military hammocks provided comfort while the low hue of green and blue that bounced across the tight walls was as if the vessel itself was assuring us it was healthy and intact.
The slow murky ocean is a universe in its own right. Its own ecosystem and life. We were but explorers, no different from our cosmonauts. Just like space, the ocean is untamed and owes no person a safe passage across, let alone down. What marine life would revolutionize our dry civilizations? Was she the new world that our society must push into? Like the brave soviet warriors who fought the German scourge, do we need a brave band of soldiers to take what we need and create what we want? What could we bring from her like a gift to our Union? We did not know. We knew we did not know but, we knew we wanted to find out. At least we thought we did. Tomorrow we would reach Cask-Life.
Red Sirens awoke me. A howling alert system drowned out everything. I fell out of my hammock and looked across the chamber. Mikhail was in a flurried panicked state. His glasses were slipping down his nose as he began manually overriding the system and regaining control of VILLA 2. I lifted myself up and ran towards the controls. Mikhail pointed to a flurry of indicators on the board. ‘Pressure – Orange, Equilibrium – Orange,’ stood out.
I quickly realized what was happening. VILLA2 had an internal chamber and a separate exterior. Like a ball within a ball. It would balance itself to the best of its ability if small adjustments had to be made during descent or ascent. In other words, we would never be thrown upside down by an underwater current. What it could not do was spin the balls in two entirely different motions. The portholes only showed steel indicating the exterior ball had been completely misaligned. VILLA2 had slowly turned itself sideways and our internal ball was straining to keep the equilibrium.
If she blew the inter-costal cogs and machinery, we would go dark. In a few tense minutes, Mikhail and I had slowly regained control. The red blinking lights stopped and the angry orange temper of the control board subsided. We aligned the chamber doors back up and ran an automatic survey. Although there was superficial damage, Vladimir pounced up. Sweat pouring from his face.
The behemoth had awoken.
“Is it the fucking Americans?”, he leapt towards a Makarov pistol still in a daze.
I dive tackled him with little success, but enough to keep him out of reach of the weapon. In that brief moment, he managed to grab his breath and look around. He fell backwards onto Mikhail’s hammock and quietly assessed what had just happened. Mikhail let out an audible sigh of relief and looked up at the clock. It was breakfast.
“We are on shifts from now on, that was stupid of me to even allow this to happen,” Mikhail said as he directed Vladimir off of his bed.
Once diagnoses were run and no main structural damage had occurred, Mikhail began manually directing VILLA2. Estimations suggested that we would reach Cask-Life in less than 6 hours. I reached for the documents and began analyzing the biographies of the three crew members we were about to meet. I did not recognize two of the names, Boris and Viktor. But one stood out. A Moscow native by the name of Anatoly.
“Anatoly. Anatoly, nuclear specialist…engineering…Moscow..”, I looked at Mikhail, “It isn’t?”
A grin broke the tension of Mikhail’s face as he ran his eyes over the crew, “Ah! Fuck, Anatoly, yes that’s him, look at the specialization and prior deployments”, our eyes darted across the biography.
“Oh man Mikhail, he’s going to hate it when he sees you. Do you remember basic training, do you remember when you, Alexander, and Povetkin put that salt in his coffee?”
“Do I fucking remember? He threw a wrench at Povetkin, nearly smashed his skull. He wasn’t angry Sergei, he was ready to kill. He didn’t speak to us until specialized deployment. Sergei, what will we say when we see him? We could pretend we have no idea who he is! We could say Command said we were sent because a stow-away was on board the Cask-Life.”
Mikhail wiped tears of laughter from his eyes, and I burst into laughter, “we could say we found out he was related to Eisenhower, and he has to return to Command to answer for being a traitor of the Soyez!
“No”, Vladimir interrupted.
“Sergei and I are joking Vladimir”, Mikhail rolled his eyes.
“No”, Vladimir re-stated.
“Well argued my friend, do tell me when are you being promoted to chief speechwriter for the general secretary?”, I mocked.
Vladimir’s expression never so much as moved. As if we were the wind blowing past his head.
“Anyway, we should be at the seabed soon enough, get yourself packed and ready, it won’t be too long now”, Mikhail said. He went back to the controls and peered out the blackened large porthole above the controls.
I reorganized my material and read over the command instructions. Cask-Life was nearing and that meant we had three new crew members. At least that is what we thought.
After another few hours, the chambers began to feel smaller. The steel which offered us the only protection from Mother Nature’s iron grip was beginning to feel as if it had developed its own sort of pressure. The air was hot but my body felt cold. One of the things they do not prepare you for is just how close your field of vision is to everything in your proximity. Looking out beyond a horizon, seeing the open expanse is a somewhat underrated feeling, one that I missed. Vladimir was resting and reading, as he usually does.
Mikhail was lethargic re-adjusting dials and buttons just to keep himself busy. “Sergei, I need to speak to you. I feel bad about this but you should know”, Mikhail moved towards me and threw down some sealed folders.
“Read this, and if you have any questions, ask me, but I think you’ll understand why we are here.”
Looking quite confused and intrigued, I picked up the folder. I looked over to Vladimir who had not stirred. I could tell Mikhail was serious. I began reading. Page after page, diagrams, physics, and of course marine studies. Most of it, was regarding Operation Atlantis, obviously. I understood it and it made sense to me. But then I began reading about a new Operation. I read and read, never lifting my head once.
After 3 hours of intense reading, I rubbed my eyes and fell back into my seat. This was not what I signed up for.
The success and eventually the aims of Operation Atlantis morphed. The Cuban Missile Crisis changed everything. It spooked high command. Once they knew the viability of the Operation, the wheels of our departments began spinning. Our propaganda was and is exceptional. We claimed that ‘we cannot survive down there’, that ‘trying to go there is wasted resources’. We filled journals with lies upon lies about the trenches and oceans, just like we filled books with false physics for our moon missions. These were sent out into the West to deter, slow down, and mislead their own Operations. While the capitalists sifted through our ‘findings’, we, in the glow of the Soviet genius, used our real information and technology and made advances no capitalist country could even dream of.
Although I had always supported the right of our government and people to resist the aggression of U.S imperialism, the movement of nuclear weapons near the self-determined Cuban freedom fighters was not without risk and reward. In the military board rooms across Russia, Cask-Life became ‘militarily advantageous”. Our science was intermixed with military research. Although non-functioning, for the moment, a small nuclear core reactor was also installed into Cask-Life.
Within the more lofty goals of ‘living underwater’ as a safe and secure alternative following nuclear fallout, there was also a military aim. This second aim was to assess the viability of a manned nuclear station at the depths of the ocean. A stable nuclear silo complete with nuclear deterrent capacity.
It was in the remit of our scientific curiosity to also provide military support to the new, aptly named and secreted Operation “железная рука”, known among the sailors and marine specialists as ‘Operation Iron Hand”.
Mikhail turned around and pointed at the folder.
“Listen, Sergei, Cask-Life is the blueprint for a potential nuclear launch base, right under the noses of our enemies. Here.”
Sergei leaned towards me and handed me a layout of the Cask-Life.
“Look, there”, He pointed to something new. A large block addition.
“Once the crew successfully managed to live and sustain themselves, word got back to High Command about the potential for a new frontier of war. Operation Iron Hand would weaponize these Life-Zones”. Mikhail stopped talking as the vessel began shaking, once is calmed, he continued. “Only two of the Life-Zones had these nuclear reactors put into place”, he pointed at the building I had never seen before.
His eyes lit up and excitement poured from his voice.
“A manned nuclear deterrent hid from sight but ready to come to our aid should we need her. No longer would weak pacts with communist sympathizing Latin America be our negotiating table. We could have nuclear weapons loaded in every Trench. Operation Atlantis and Operation Iron Hand would work to create a new frontier of warfare against capitalist aggression. This is part of history, we will be wearing medals by the end of this!”
I shook my head. Did he realize what he was saying? We weren’t going to a Life-Zone, we were going to a prototype nuclear base.
“Mikhail, I do not even know where to begin. This sounds incredibly dangerous. What is there is a leak on Cask-Life? We could be walking into a death trap.”
“No, no Sergei, High Command have been getting clear radiation readings and the reactor was completely inactive!”
Before I could protest more in indignation that the entire mission had been kept from me from the get-go, Vladimir sounded the warning that Cask-Life was in view. Leaning forward he flipped two large steel switches on the control board. Two massive beams of light appeared from overheard external floodlights. Mikhail and I pressed our faces against the larger porthole at the bow of VILLA2 in a vain attempt to see Cask-Life. Sure enough, as we smoothly descended towards the seafloor a large object came into view. A massive steel dual chamber like two iron lungs. At the bow of Cask-Life was a control chamber, although compact it was clearly two floors accessible by a small ladder. Surrounding her are high powered beams automated on turrets they continually provide illumination in the immediate seafloor.
What makes Cask-Life even more impressive is that just meters away from the two main chambers is the Kuril–Kamchatka trench. Apart from the invisible to human eye volcanic heat utilized by Cask-Life, it was an abyss of pitch darkness. No life. No sound. Nothingness. As I tried to envision the sheer expanse of nothingness, I picked out something that I had only just come to know existed. I saw that the nuclear reactor that had been installed. The reactor was bolted and secured close to the Trench and was connected to Cask-Life by a small tunnel. Its low red hue meant it was churning out power. A small but functioning reactor. It was massive in scale, almost twice as big as the living chambers. Reddened water surrounded and swirled around it.
Mikhail had to physically secure the two vessels to one another. Utilizing his expertise, connecting the VILLA2 to Cask-Life proved to be routine. Mikhail made it look easy. Resting on top of her was a small shortened tunnel that would physically latch onto our small tunnel underneath VILLA 2.
One of the two tunnels connected into one shortened steel legs would connect into specifically crafted holes along the top of Cask-Life. We braced for impact as he reversed two propellers on each side of VILLA 2 in order to soften the momentum of the vessel’s sharp drop. After a few moments of slow descent, we made the first break. Once the two half tunnels were connected, they became one unified front and access up and back was granted. Any water contained within the small chambers valves was ejected out with a pressure release.
VILLA2 was now balanced on top of Cask-Life which was almost 3x the size of our vessel even excluding the nuclear reactor.
Mikhail sighed in relief and turned his attention towards me, “look, Sergei, I wish I could have told you sooner, but it was imperative to keep it as quiet as possible, we wanted to keep the pool of confidants as small as we could” said Mikhail.
“Why though?”, I replied.
“High Command, paranoia, I don’t know the full details, there’s even stuff we still don’t know, I think if they said it was a nuclear reactor, Vladimir and you wouldn’t have gone.
Vladimir was only briefed just before you turned up at the Shipyard. Probably explains why he hasn’t been talking too much” Mikhail shrugged his shoulders.
We grabbed their belongings and once green dials flashed on the control board we knew it was safe to open the hatch. Mikhail and Vladimir went ahead of me. Still angered by the fact I was left out of the loop on the nuclear reactor, I sluggishly made my way to the hatch.
I continued down the steel ladder until finally, I dropped a short distance onto the cold floors of Cask-Life. With a sigh of relief and breath of air, I took in what we just did, how monumental it was. I guess in the grand scheme of things, I was part of Soviet history.
I turned around to face the crew, no doubt they would have just as many questions as we would. Standing just in front of me a completely silent Mikhail and Vladimir. Eyes wide nervous.
I looked at both of them and then straight ahead. then I realized what makes them freeze in the spot. Standing right in front of me were two of the crew.
Anatoly and Viktor. Silent. Unmoving, Smiling.
They were expecting us.
We stood there for what felt like forever. Although Cask-Life was much bigger than VILLA2, I felt encased in something tight and unnatural.
Yellow beams encased the steel panels and it had a dome-shape to help in the distribution of external pressure.
Anatoly was a short stout fellow with black hair. His clothing was a mess; untucked and unkempt. His skin was pale and sickly. His eyes were the only thing fresh about him. Viktor beside him had not shaved and his hair was far longer than would normally be allowed. He must have been working on something mechanical by the looks of grease and oil on his white t-shirt. On his neck was some light bruising. I didn’t make anything of it. Eventually, and to my surprise, Vladimir mustered up a few words.
He pointed to himself, “we are crew support. High Command. You are Viktor and Anatoly?” He reached out his hand. Obviously, Vladimir had been studying the brief.
Anatoly smiled, “we are Anatoly and Viktor, Crew Support!”, he clasped his hand around Vladimir’s. For a short and out of shape man, his grip was like a vice. Vladimir winced just as the grip was released.
In the close proximity of Anatoly, I had wondered why he had not recognized either I or Mikhail. I decided not to press the issue, perhaps it was a blessing he had suppressed the memories of our annoying pranks at basic training. Yet still, nothing. A glazed yet relaxed face. It’s almost as if he knew nothing of us, the mission, or even himself.
“Yeah, That’s Vladimir, I am Sergei, and this is Mikhail. High Command sent us because they were worried about you. They said they had not heard from any of you in quite some time”, I said, “but from the looks of it, it seems everything is fine? Is that right? Where is…Boris?
Anatoly put his fingers to his lips indicating silence. His smile never left his face. He pointed to the second chamber to our immediate left. He gestured coughing. He then stepped out of the way and pointed to the control chamber behind him. I nodded and squeezed by them. We walked past the two men and into the control chamber. The main room was like VILLA2 in the sense that it was connected to the control chamber via a tunnel. Although since Cask-Life was bigger in almost every respect the narrowed tunnel that VILLA2 had was more like a short corridor in Cask-Life.
I leaned down and inspected the sprawling complicated mess of controls, dials, switches, and buttons. Numerous lights flickered and emitted low electrical hums. Then I saw the communication box. To my shock, it was irreparably damaged. Wires were cut. Dials were cracked. It appeared as if someone had tried to rip it out in a frenzy of anger or despair.
I pointed to it. Mikhail leaned down, catching his glasses as they slipped down his nose. He frowned. Something was not right.
Our intuitions kicked in immediately. We must not let on that anything is unusual. Not until we get to the bottom of this mystery at, coincidentally, the bottom of the ocean. Vladimir readjusted his belt. I saw he had the Makarov pistol from earlier.
Mikhail turned towards the two crew members, “this makes sense why guy guys weren’t saying much to High Command! I have seen it before. Let me guess”, he pointed to the fire extinguishers concealed in the two apartments above our heads, “one must have fallen and smashed off of it?”
Viktor threw his hands up in the air and Anatoly laughed. He laughed and laughed. Then he went quiet and his gaze turned to a quiet unrelenting stare. Whether that was an affirmation of Mikhail’s hypothesis was unclear. Either way, we knew that this was of design and not an accident. Fire extinguishers don’t leave the appearance of clawing. I knew from my own studies of prototype Life-Zones that the isolated and enclosed environment can lead people to mental fatigue. Perhaps being down here for such an extended period of time had scrambled their ability to interact normally.
Nonetheless, those types of people are the last ones who should be near a nuclear reactor.
Mikhail took out a small layout of the electricity lines from his jacket and began wandering around the interior of the main chamber trying to piece together the electrical infrastructure. He buried his head into his small blue map and began tinkering with the wires underneath the damaged communications.
“Water”, Viktor pointed to the supplies laying around a large mess table behind him at the stern of the vessel. A large plastic white table with multiple small stools. There in between the clothes, tools, and magazines were some pristine glasses of water.
“No, I am quite alright thank you,” I said. Vladimir who was the closest of our crew to the table picked up a small cup and drank. He nodded thankfully and then wandered into the second chamber that Anatoly had pointed to. Shortly after he stormed back out and right back up to the ladder to VILLA2. A few awkward moments of silence later a large bag crashed down onto the steel floor. This startled Mikhail as he banged his head on the underside of the controls. Vladimir climbed down the ladder, lifted his rucksack over his shoulder.
“Sick”, Vladimir growled as he walked past us.
“Vladimir is a health professional, it’s probably best he check on Boris right away”, I assured them. I wasn’t long after him.
‘Anything was better than this stulted protracted staring’, I thought.
The second chamber was the sleeping quarters. 6 beds, two washrooms. Three of the beds appeared used, and one of those was in current use. There was Boris. He was sweating profusely. His eyes were reddened and his skin was pale with thick blue veins pulsating across his neck and forehead. Before I got too near the bed, Vladimir grabbed my arm quickly. He produced two oxygen masks from his rucksack beside him. It seems that High Command was worried about a gas leakage within Cask-Life. I didn’t protest, they would do as a protective measure against whatever it was that had infected Boris.
Vladimir leaned in. Taking a very cautious approach he checked vitals and felt his pulse. If you had asked me, I would have hazarded a claim that I could almost hear his heart pounding against its bone cage.
I looked down at the mess that was Boris, “Boris? Boris? Can you hear me?” I slapped his arm.
Vladimir kneeled and gave a perplexed shake of the head. He lifted himself up and very carefully checked Boris’ reflexes of which he failed most. Then he carefully removed a thin syringe. The little short jab was enough to rejuvenate Frankenstein’s Monster as Boris opened his eyes. He looked startled but not by the fact two strangers were surrounding him, something else spooked him.
“You…you…you have to take me”, he stuttered out, “please! The eyes” but just before he could finish his sentence his head fell back onto the pillow. His throat pulsated back and forth. His eyes bulged and strained. I saw red veins on the verge of popping open. He gasped for air as Vladimir frantically restrained him to the bed. Then just as quickly as he had woken up, he calmed and went back to sleep.
I looked at Vladimir in disbelief but before I could utter anything, in the corner of my eye, I saw something. I turned and looked to the doorway of the first chamber. There they were, Viktor and Anatoly. Standing mute. Smiling and staring quietly. They didn’t look too worried about their comrade’s deteriorating condition. They didn’t look remotely startled. I tried a few direct questions regarding Boris’ condition but again, I was given nothing. In my exasperation, I decided to leave the medical business to Vladimir as he said he would run a few more tests on Boris while Mikhail and I decided to check the rest of Cask-Life which meant we needed to see the nuclear reactor.
We still had mission aims to complete.
Back in the main chamber Mikhail had run his own personal diagnoses in the control room and barring the communications Cask-Life was functioning. He was an expert technician but even he couldn’t salvage that wrecked equipment. We had communications in VILLA2 which we could avail of. He gestured to me and then scurried his way through a connecting tunnel that led into the nuclear reactor room. He called for me to join him. A tight squeeze down the tunnel, I reached Mikhail.
The reactor was an impressive technological advancement and took up most space center of the room. I squeezed past the reactor around to the far side of the room. It was quite constricting.
“We are close to the Trench,” Mikhail said.
“The reactor is placed just beside the Trench.”
I laid my hand on the side. The heat emitting was intense. She was activated. I read the specifications on the side.
“Isn’t this a water reactor Mikhail, not a nuclear one?”
“Yes and no, it’s a VVER model, water-water, but look here”, he pointed to the large thin rods shooting up the side, “it was fitted with a nuclear component. She shouldn’t be active right now, only the water component should be functioning. See that switchboard behind you, Sergei? Flip the two red switches and the lower the dial, let’s see if she’s at 100%.”
The room also had portholes surrounding it. Besides the two largest portholes was a massive switchboard unlike most I’ve seen. It was very advanced. It hummed a little song of work. I flipped two switches and the reactor hummed lightly in parallel to the switchboard before green lights at the top sparked up and dimmed.
“The dial Sergei.”
I flipped a third switch but nothing occurred in the reactor. We stood in solemn silence. Quickly I realized what I had done. I had accidentally flipped a switch and not turned a dial. I turned around and as I saw, the flickering of lights outside indicated what the third switch was for. I had accidentally turned the exterior floodlights on. The portholes were now offering insight to the outside world.
“Oh my, look at this.” I pointed to the outside. The Trench was semi-visible. Huge natural walls of rock and a black pool of empty below. We could see across the abyss to the other side of the rock wall.
I turned and looked out. I craned my neck and tried to glimpse as much of it as I could and that’s when I saw it. A beautiful underwater ecosystem. My expertise. To see it now was overwhelming. An entire world underneath our own. I looked to see how far down the light managed to go. Then I saw them. I am almost certain I did. Eyes. Yellow and white in the rock face, thousands of them. Like lights in the Trench. They jittered around the rocks. Then in one instance stopped and turned. They were staring right as us.
As the floodlights shone brighter more eyes reflected off it until ‘Zerrrrrrip!’. Pitch Blackness. Then in the darkness sounds of whirling and revving. Blue lights lit up the interior signaling the emergency generator was engaged. Sounds of whirling and revving.
“Fuck, Mikhail did you see that?”
“Eyes or something! Something in the Trenches?” Don’t fucking tell me you didn’t see it?”
“What?”, he nudged past me and began tinkering with the dials. A few moments later the reactor hummed up again and the standard lights returned. I lowered the intensity of the floodlights and turned them back on. They were weaker but could still illuminate the rockface across from us. I looked back out the porthole. Nothing was there.
“Sergei, it was probably just crystals reflecting light, it happens.”
“No, I know crystals, I am a fucking expert on this Mikhail. It was something else!”
“Look, being in small chambers, this whole mission, it plays on your mind. You see things you don’t always see”, he placed his hand on my shoulder.
I shrugged him off.
“No, I definitely saw something, Mikhail, I don’t have a good feeling about this place, why didn’t Anatoly recognize us? Why are they so fucking strange acting? What’s wrong with Boris?”
“What is wrong with Boris?” Mikhail asked
“He’s fucked. Really sick. Really bad, he’s infected with something.”
Mikhail grimaced. I continued.
“They’re like brain-dead, Vladimir and I were with Boris and he was seriously ill they didn’t even react. It’s as if they didn’t even understand what happened to him. I know we’re supposed to bring back injured but I don’t want him near our bunks. Who knows what’s wrong with him?
“Withdrawal? Maybe he’s a user. Opiates?” Mikhail said.
“I don’t know, it’s like they are zombies.” I leaned back against the steel wall. “Anyway, we need to keep calm and cool. Whatever this is, we need to stick together.”
Mikhail nodded, “Yes, we need to work as a team and figure this out.”
Then in the moment of our resolution. I realized. I looked into Mikhail’s eyes and I knew he was thinking it as well.
We scrambled out of the reactor room and saw Vladimir. Standing there. He looked at us and smiled.
We grabbed our equipment in the nuclear reactor chamber and ran back to Vladimir. We were clearly distraught. There they were. Anatoly and Viktor. The two crew members. They were silently sitting at the far end of the table in the main chamber. Standing silently looking at us was Vladimir. He smiled disappeared and he stared quietly at our worried demeanor.
“Vladimir, what’s wrong?”, Mikhail said in between catching his breath.
He looked silently at both of us.
“Vlad, say something,” I said
His face contorted. I saw the Makarov on his belt.
He stepped forward and looked straight at us.
“Vlad…imir, my name is not Vlad”, he shook his head in annoyance packed up his medical equipment and pushed past us.
A sigh of relief fell over my face as I almost mustered a laugh. I looked at my watch, we had been here for almost 5 hours. That meant it was time to eat. Essential to our own mental durability we needed to regularly and frequently keep hydrated and energized even if we didn’t feel in the mood for food. I explained to Anatoly and Viktor that perhaps we should eat as a crew. Although it was the last thing I wanted to do we couldn’t just run out of here after a few hours, we had to keep this running smoothly as possible. We also needed to observe them a bit more and figure out just what is affecting them. Clearly what affected Boris was different from these two. They were calm and collected. While Boris was a sprawling mess in the other room.
Being as pro-active as I could, I gestured for them to clear off the table.
“I saw MRE boxes in the sleeping quarters, I’ll get them.”
I walked back into the sleeping quarters. I looked down at the food supplies. I stood there quietly and rubbed my eyes. Only the now unconscious Boris to keep me company. Not much company. He was present physically at the very least. I stood for a few moments trying to evaluate what was before me but…this didn’t make any sense.
“Mikhail, can you give me a hand bringing in the MREs”, I shouted into the main chamber. When he walked through the doors, I pulled him aside and pointed to the MREs.
I whispered to him, “we have a big problem here. Look. Look at the MREs. Count the sealed boxes”, I lifted up a sheet of paper with the rationing checklist. I pointed at the food specifications on them. The numbers didn’t make sense.
“10 boxes, sealed, yes?” He was unimpressed.
“Yes, exactly, 10 sealed boxes, and there are 10 here”
“So? High Command got something right for once, what about it?” He took a small knife and opened one of them taking out enough MREs for the two crews.
“Mikhail use your fucking brain if there are 10 boxes here and they were given 10, what is the conclusion?”
He looked dimly at me for a moment then I saw it. The reaction I just had on his face.
“They haven’t been eating them, Sergei? They haven’t been eating food”
Cold shot up my spine. They haven’t eaten anything. It wasn’t humanly possible. My mind pondered every question that had accumulated thus far.
‘Who was outside Cask-Life, who were those eyes belonging to but more importantly, who were we stuck here with?‘
He laughed in disbelief. Then went quiet. After a few moments he came to his own rationalization, “they must have contraband or something, no one can last with no food,” he said in a hushed voice.
“No, this is…this isn’t right…look remember the salt prank we did in basic training? Remember how annoyed he got? Let’s just try it again. Even if he gets angry, at least it’s something, at least we’d know he is still the loud mouth Anatoly we know”, I began pouring six rations of salt into a small cup of water. “If he loses it, I’ll say it was my joke.”
Mikhail gave a disbelieving look, but at this stage, he was in agreement, a familiar reaction, even one of rage, would be welcome.
We didn’t want to leave Vladimir along too long and so we returned to the table and rejoined them. Moments spent in Cask-Life felt like agony. The constant silent watchers of Anatoly and Viktor. Dinner was a quiet affair, handing out the MREs and so forth. I noticed that Anatoly and Viktor began reading the front and back. Intensely. Then in a brief moment of stillness proceeded to open and assemble their meal.
‘Strange, surely they know how to use an MRE?‘
I passed over two cups, both of water but one had the salt in it. Vladimir tried to take the saltwater cup but I slapped his hand. He stared at me in quiet shock. I almost laughed, this hulking gorilla getting called up for bad table manners. Nonetheless, I handed it to Anatoly. He picked it up, looked at the cup, and smiled. I froze as did Mikhail.
‘Was he about to reject it? Did he know?’
Anatoly drank it. Mikhail’s inability to hide a smile in anticipation of a big reaction disappeared. It was replaced with a look of pure fear as Anatoly nodded in enthusiasm and set the cup back down. He has just drunk half a cup of heavily salted water with no more than a nod of approval in response.
Something was desperately wrong here.
‘How could a human do that?’ I thought.
We ate in silence. We could not think of a conversation worthy of breaking the awkwardness that had begun to intensify. It felt as if the water pressure outside the vessel had seeped through. To add to that the heat was almost unbearable. Mikhail and I were sweating while Vladimir had taken off most of his heavy clothing leaving only a barrelled chest and thin t-shirt. Yet Anatoly and Viktor once again defying the normal expectations of just being fucking human showed no outward signs of sweating.
As dinner concluded, we checked the time. By surface standards, the night was setting in. Our watches were synchronized with above surface time. This was a way to keep some routine and rhythm. These indirect moments of staying in touch with reality became far more valuable as the mystery of Cask-Life consumed our thoughts.
In the briefest of nods and smiles, and after we grabbed the medical and electrical equipment we ascended back into VILLA 2. Our excuse was for ‘space and hygiene’, that we insisted on sticking to our original bunks as well as keeping an eye on the logistics of VILLA2. We didn’t really care if that was plausible we needed to put space between the two crew. For our own sanity.
I was the first to ascend back into our home, VILLA2. And that’s when I saw it. In front of me. Our communications. destroyed. Smashed to pieces. Ripped from the control board.
“Fuck!”, I put my hands behind my head.
Mikhail was soon after me and once he saw it he rushed over to the control chamber.
Mikhail tried to soothe the hissing wires and the amber glowing hole where communications ought to be.”This is clearly sabotage, could High Command have been right? About the United States?”
“No, I saw eyes outside the vessel. This isn’t the U.S. This is something else. I am certain of it. Whatever this is, it’s..it’s not human, it has nothing to do with any of that”, I slammed my hand against the steel wall. It echoed around the chamber.
“The salt, no person could take that, and the food, no food is eaten?”, the accumulative evidence suggested something we had no training or expectation of.
Vladimir took his gun from his belt and checked the magazine. In a stern and determined voice, he spoke sense, “we must leave.”
Back in VILLA2, a standoff had occurred. Vladimir was positioned in front of the hatch leading back to Cask-Life while Mikhail was standing beside the main controls. Vladimir was insistent on an immediate bug out. Mikhail though was not convinced.
“Why is it that you want to just run off now, Vladimir?”, Mikhail placed his hands on the roof.
“Gotten very enthusiastic for getting back to dry land when this whole fucking mission you haven’t so much as spoken a word to either of us”, Mikhail’s eyes widened and his mouth turned to a snarl.
“Got somewhere to be?”
“Mikhail, we cannot remain here, you know that?”, I reluctantly had to side with Vladimir.
“Oh, that must be it, Sergei. Whatever is down here. Whatever is doing this to them. It must turn them. Turn them into a cyka blyat!”
I was taken back by Sergei’s sudden turn but I knew pressure down here caused real mental fatigue. The issue though was wondering whether it was a natural reaction to being in such an enclosed space or something more worrying like that of Boris.
“Mikhail, what’s gotten into you? Use your reason, something isn’t right here”, in Vladimir’s hand was the loaded pistol. If that thing went off in here we would compress like a tin can.
I moved in between both of them putting an arm’s length between the fired up crew members.
“We must stick together, it’s our only choice. Look, if we were infected we’d probably know by now.” I said that with confidence but even I knew that wasn’t necessarily true.
Marine ecosystems are diverse and complex. We didn’t know how fast or what early symptoms would appear in someone. We also didn’t even know if it was biological. I’ve heard of experiments that our Soviet scientists used to undertake involving oxygen, sleep deprivation, and food. Men’s bodies can morph into dangerous things when put under inhumane testing conditions.
“Mikhail, Vladimir, we need to neutralize the nuclear capability of Cask-Life first and foremost. We cannot leave it in the hands of whatever the fuck they are”, I began pacing, “Is that chamber door shut?” I walked over and made sure it was sealed so they couldn’t hear us.
“Look, later, when they’re asleep, I’ll go back down and neutralize the reactor. I just need a few tools right Mikhail?”
He nodded and then explained.
“You saw it for yourself, Sergei. Every prototype had an automatic failsafe. If you make it think that it’s about to implode it immediately isolates the rods and it basically ‘concretes’. It turns the thing into a block. It’s a drastic measure but it ultimately renders the reactor obsolete. It’s the last measure if you need immediate containment. It’s an expensive failsafe though.” He sighed, “If it’s concreted, it is neutralized.”
He continued, “I am the crew captain, I should be the one who goes back down. If anything, I should do it.”
I shook my head, “you’re the pilot, Mikhail. We’re no use to anyone if Vladimir and I end up spinning into the trench immediately after we disengage from Cask-Life.”
I shuddered at the thought.
“No, you’ll be needed for re-release, you have to stay up here”, Vladimir nodded. My bravery wasn’t as strong as I presented it, and if they pushed, I didn’t know how much longer I could truly protest.
“Fine, you know what you have to do”, Mikhail turned his head away. I could see he was truly worried.
Vladimir placed his hand on my shoulder and handed me the small pistol and I tucked in behind my back.
“I won’t need this Vlad”, he paused and looked at me.
“Imir… Vladimir,” I mean.
He smiled and walked back to his bunk. In a few hours, I’ll descend back into Cask-Life, back into the unknown.
After some time had passed and no noise had emerged from Cask-Life. We checked the vitals. Oxygen levels are stable. I manually lifted the hatch and carefully and quietly descended into Cask-Life. I avoided dropping down onto the steel floor by lowering myself as much as I could towards the ground. I dropped a very short distance onto the floor and held quietly waiting for any sounds that may indicate I was heard.
After a few brief and tense moments of silence, I proceeded towards the nuclear reactor. The closest point I could be to the trench itself. The chambers were lit by the glow of blue and yellow lights on the walls. I pressed on into the nuclear chamber and began my tinkering. I undid a steel panel with the internal dials. The ones only engineers should be modifying. I began winding the internal pressure dial. If the reactor thinks that it is sustaining increased pressure then it will think it is overloading. If successful, no noise would occur. The stasis it is in would merely ‘concrete’ so to speak.
Seconds felt like minutes, minutes like hours.
After a brief but tense focus, I saw the first indicators on the panel I had previously interacted with. 1 light, 2 lights, and there…3 red lights. The nuclear reactor was telling me that it was about to neutralize itself. I sat myself up and went to the switchboard. I pressed two switched up and done. The low red hue emitting of the reactor disappeared. The reactor was neutralized.
For a moment, I forgot my concerns with Cask-Life. I had just potentially rid our enemies of a functioning nuclear reactor. I sighed and leaned against the wall. I took in my surroundings. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I looked towards the portholes. I nearly fell back onto my tools in shock when I saw it. I remained quiet, not moving.
The eyes, six large yellow eyes and black glistening eel-like tentacles swarmed over the porthole staring at me. They pushed and shoved to put pressure on the reenforced glass.
I scrambled my tools and ducked out through the tunnel.
When I arrived back in the main chamber the silence was deafening. I carefully made my way towards the ladder. More eyes. This time human’s eyes, 3 sets. Yellow. Anatoly, Boris, and Viktor. Sitting at the dinner table. Smiling. Had they been there the entire time? I stood up and placed my hand behind my back reaching for my Makarov.
“We’re fucking going”, I shouted up towards the hatch.
The three ‘men’ stood up and moved towards me. Mikhail must have heard me because he rapidly dropped down the ladder. He was holding a wrench in one hand.
“You didn’t think I was leaving so soon did you?”, he never took his eyes off of the crew. Vladimir was leaning his head down the chamber trying to peer into Cask-Life.
“Did you neutralize it?”
“Yes, it’s done, now let’s get the fuck off of this thing.”
The three crew were slowly moving towards us. They smiled and cut off the most direct way we had to the ladder. In that situation, I knew I had to resort to a drastic measure. I lifted the gun and pointed it at Anatoly. His face contorted. He definitely recognized a gun.
Vladimir had now descended halfway down the ladder. From this angle, he could just see the back of the three crew but was out of their reach.
I looked at Boris. “you’re looking much better aren’t you?”
He gave me a wide-eyed smile.
“Perhaps, but I do not think he is really that much better, Sergei.”
As I pointed my gun at Boris, I saw Anatoly’s face contort. Thick tube-like shapes were wrapping around his throat underneath his skin. It was as if he swallowed some sort of snake. His head began violently shaking. He leapt forward. I blasted off two shots before the agony of the noise immobilized me. I threw my hands up to my ears and winced as Anatoly’s body went limp before me. Mikhail and I were disorientated, a gunshot is an enclosed space echo violently, blinding and deafening you.
Being accurate in here meant life or death. Two shots in his right eye, one had gone right through the back of his skull. and fortunately embedded itself a panel. He was dead. Yet, as I stepped over him his arms, wrapped around my leg. I looked down, his head was rocked back lifeless but his body was almost automatically defending itself as if something in him was animating his corpse. I pushed him off and with that, he went limp again. I pointed the gun at Boris and Viktor.
I straightened my arm and calibrated my next shot, “he was my fucking friend and I put two bullets in his fucking skull”. I looked stern and serious but that only hide the panic and stress that was engrossing me.
“Your friend?”, Vladimir was hanging from the ladder. He looked at me confused.
l ignored the gorilla.
“We’re getting off this fucking wreck right now.”
I backed up to the wall and circled around Boris and Viktor towards my escape. I looked up towards Mikhail who was now positioning himself in between me and VILLA2’s ladder. The two men remained silent and unmoving. They didn’t react. They stared at the gun. Mikhail slowly began climbing up the ladder as I kept aim. I needed to reach up to the ladder but it meant that I had to hand him my gun.
“Here, take this, I need both hands to be free to climb the ladder.”
I clasped my free hand around his, staring intently at Boris and Viktor who had by this point held my stare, unblinkingly but just as I began handing the gun to Mikhail which inevitably meant taking my aim of the two ‘crew members’, both Boris and Viktor rushed forward. Mikhail scrambled the gun out of my hand but had not adjusted his aim and let off a shot which bounced violently across the ship ricocheting off three steel plates in the walls behind Boris’ head.
It exploded into the chest of Viktor and spurted blood across the ground but still, he was unfazed. Mikhail was grabbed by the arm and thrown off the ladder and down on the floor. In the panic and in the confusion of the brawl he tackled them both into in the center of the chamber.
Cask-Life began rumbling and the sounds of churning water could be heard on the bow. Lights went up and red sirens wailed throughout.
“Go quick”, he shouted, and before I could protest Vladimir had grabbed me and hoisted me through the connecting tunnel of VILLA2 and Cask-Life. I flew up the tunnel and peered down frantically searching for Mikhail. Mikhail buying himself a quick second by letting off another shot clambered up the ladder. The sirens continued and the red and yellow lights splashed over his face and reflected off his glasses.
He threw me a grin as he shot up the ladder into the tunnel but before he could get into VILLA2 his legs were grabbed and he was pulled down towards the ship floor. Anatoly’s lifeless corpse was flailing and wrapping around his leg. Boris and Viktor were not far behind.
A pop sounded and he let out a shout. His leg had been torn out. He hollered in agony and stared up intensely.
He knew what I didn’t want to say. He slammed his hand on the emergency button within the tunnel shattering the glass in his palm. Blood splattered on his face. The two hatches closed cutting Anatoly in half and slicing off the arm of Boris.
Mikhail had pressed an emergency release which was designed to shut off portions of the ship in case of a leak. I was pale. Mikhail was trapped in between the two vessels. He had saved our lives but I knew he had given up his.
Vladimir shoved past me and began an emergency release from Cask-Life. The mechanisms were set in motion. I leapt forward and began protesting in vain. He and I knew we could not open the chamber again. Vladimir slammed buttons, yellow blinking lights signaled the danger of the detachment protocol being overridden but he ignored them, he knew what he was doing. I returned to the hatch and over the noise and commotion of the disengagement, I heard Mikhail.
“Sergei, Sergei!”, he yelled.
“Yes Mikhail, I can hear you! Are you injured?”
“Not as injured as Anatoly is! The cyka!”
“Mikhail, I cannot open the hatch, the pressurization has already begu…”
“I know Sergei, I know but guess what”
“I definitely should get the Ushakov for this.”
Before I could enjoy the final moment of our friendship, the steel shaking began. VILLA2 let out three long hisses of pressure and she disengaged from Cask-Life. Although I couldn’t see anything I knew what had happened. I knew Mikhail had just experienced the flooding of water, mass decompression.
Ultimately, I could only pray his death wasn’t in vain or in suffering.
The sheer momentum of the lift-off discombobulated the system’s ordinance. I was thrown back into the controls as Vladimir switched on every external light to see where we were positioned. Right in front of us, the precipice of the Trench was rushing to greet out now out of control vessel.
“Vladimir, fuck, reverse the thrusters at the front”, I joined his side and began trying to regain control. VILLA2 hurtled towards the trench only just regaining control. It hovered above Cask-Life. Vladimir began resetting the dials and preparing for the ascent.
“Hold on, look”, I pointed to the main porthole. “Cask-Life, her reactor what’s that wrapping around it?”
Taking manual control of the bows on the lights via two large steel dials, Vladimir pointed them towards the tail end of Cask-Life, the part that was attached to the inside of the trench. Maintaining equilibrium we got a clearer view of what was happening.
Huge black tentacles were wrapped around the outside of the reactor. Whatever it was, it was taking Cask-Life with it. Large curling black arms squeezed and compressed Cask-Life. The Black vines attached itself while 100s of yellowed eyes lit up the rock face. Like arms outstretched, and of differing length they began swarming over the entirety of Cask-Life.
The floodlights on Cask-Life were being destroyed. A massive seismic shocked rattled the interior of our vessel. Vladimir and I were thrown back. The sheer strength of this animal had blown the internal atmosphere of Cask-Life leaving it vulnerable to Mother Nature’s Wrath.
In a matter of moments, the bolted and secure Cask-Life was pulled down into the Abyss. White-eyes on the rock faces of the Trench rapidly blinked and fluttered in a sort of whimsy.
They disappeared back into the rock.
Vladimir and I were in awe. The project, the crew, Boris and Viktor were gone along with the bodies of Mikhail and Anatoly.
VILLA2 was now the only object emitting light, even the eyes have gone.
We were in darkness. I thought we were alone. Then we heard a knock on the outside of VILLA2. Someone was there. What I remember so far. Although, my memory isn’t what it was:
Vladimir had regained control of VILLA2. We remained silent. A knock on the porthole window? It couldn’t be.
“Vladimir did you hear…?”
I pointed to the switches for the external lights. Vladimir hesitated. He looked at me and for the first time, I saw it in his eyes and knew. He was afraid. I moved towards the sound of knocking. It rattled off the steel. Vladimir switched the lights on. The seconds waiting were unbearable. The lights fluttered. Went dark. Then they shone. That’s when I saw. That’s when I saw him.
Panic induced my body. There he was. His body anyway. Eyes open looking at us. Vladimir stumbled back onto his bunk in shock.
I could see the water pressure caving in around his body. Squeezing and flexing his bones and muscles yet his mass remained intact. What was he made out of that he could withstand such pressures? It was like he was fluid. His skin was tightened but I could make out the eel-shaped creatures squirming under his arms and neck. His entire body was filled with them as they swarmed over his chest, neck, and face. I held his stare. I don’t know for how long. He knocked again. He pointed to the hatch as if I was about to just let him in. Then he smiled.
He was repeatedly knocking and gesturing to be let back into the vessel. That wasn’t Mikhail. That wasn’t even human. As he realised we weren’t about to open the hatch his smile turned to a stare and his knocks became heavier. The steel creaked at the external pressure.
Vladimir picked himself up and uttered a short sentence.
“We are going.”
As he shifted the thrusters and re-aligned VILLA2’s internal and external chambers, I couldn’t take my eyes off of my former friend. There was nothing that could be done to save him. We began our ascent and I lost sight of him. Darkness consumed the porthole. He was gone. The Trench was gone. The seabed was gone.
I collapsed onto my bunk in a frenzied state. My head was spinning and the chamber felt like it closing in. Sweat rolled down my neck as I gasped for air. In my mind, I thought the oxygen levels had plummeted, and we were going to die. I had never suffered a fear of enclosed spaces but every gasp for air was like pulling oxygen through a tight mask constricting my throat. Every creak of the steel caused my heart to bounce around my chest. I was Immobilised and frantic.
Vladimir grasped me by both hands.
“Is normal now…is normal now.”
Hearing his voice, even though it was cold and emotionless re-assured me. I sat forward with my head in my hands trying to catch my thoughts and my mind. Silence. He returned to the controls while I returned to reality albeit reluctantly.
Hours ticked by. Vladimir and I sat in silence. Neither of us had gotten any sleep. Even with both of us tinkering with the main control, our communications were still down. Vladimir had given up quite some time ago and resigned himself to his bunk. I wandered aimlessly in the tight enclosure trying to calculate what we would report back to High Command.
None of it seemed plausible, I thought.
Eyes and eels. Zombies who don’t eat but smile at you. It just didn’t fit into their framework of reality. How could it? Even I began to question my own sanity. I could recount every memory but even then I didn’t remember some of it. It was an overload of information.
I collected my tools and electrical equipment and opened the storage locker. Until now I had no use for the gun box that Vladimir had gotten his first Makarov out of. In my own inquisitive nature, I opened it. A Makarov laid there with a magazine. Cold cool steel. His partner saved our lives back in Cask-Life. I didn’t think much of it. Yet, something wasn’t right. One Makarov? There’s clearly space for two more here. One for each crew member. Obviously, one was gone to the depths of the ocean with Mikhail. I sighed in despair when I thought back to that. The second Makarov though. Where could that be? I quietly grabbed the third pistol and tucked it behind my back into my belt.
I thought of the question over and over again.
We were through the better part of the entire day at least according to the dials. this meant we were halfway through our ascent back to dry land. I felt weak. Even though I wasn’t hungry I knew it was because of that. I was also concerned with the missing pistol. Did Vladimir have it? Even if he did, Cask-Life’s crew didn’t seem to understand guns. Their first experience must have been ours.
I sat down on my bunk. I felt the cold steel of the pistol. It felt heavy. Heavier than usual.
“Vladimir, pass me an MRE, I need to eat.”
He looked at me plainly and after a few moments of shuffling through boxes beside him, he produced one. He threw it towards me. I read the instructions and ripped open the contents and began making instant coffee. The rations were miserable, as was I.
“Not hungry?” I inquired.
He shook his head.
“What are we going to tell them at Command? Sea creatures ate Cask-Life? They’ll think we have lost it, or worse they will think we are turned by the U.S. They won’t buy into the truth. No. We have to come up with something better than that.”
The coffee tasted bitter. I used a compact can opener in the MRE to get to the biscuits in the tin.
“Technical malfunction in the reactor is our only bet. We could say that the crew and Mikhail refused to leave but knew we had to send word back to High Command. We could insist that Mikhail be awarded for his bravery?”
It didn’t even sound plausible.
If the reactor was malfunctioning how would we have even gotten away in time?
“I have no idea what we’re going to tell them. Perhaps, Vlad, we could tell them that the crew had gone crazed in the…in…”, I stopped and looked at Vladimir.
He didn’t say a word.
A cold chill shot up my spine. I stared deeply at him in silence. I reached behind my back and clasped the gun.
“I am sure High Command can be reasoned with but first I need more coffee. Vlad, can you pass me another MRE? They’re right behind you.”
Vladimir nodded but didn’t react. He slowly turned his back to me and began looking through the boxes. I didn’t want any more coffee. I stood up and walked over to him.
I took the gun and pointed it to the back of his head. My hand shook as I felt my finger squeeze.
“Sorry Vladimir”, I closed my eyes as I fired three bullets in rapid succession. They blew right into the back of his head. His body slumped into a heap on the floor. Blood began pouring from his skull.
My ears were stinging. My breath was gone. I was numb.
I scrambled over to the storage room and grabbed a pen. I began writing frantically across my arm. My head was light and I wasn’t sure if I was making sense but nonetheless, I wrote and wrote. Then I dropped my pen. I looked into the storage locker. There it was. The second Makarov it must have come loose when VILLA2 lost its equilibrium on our descent. Vladimir never took it.
Everyone I knew on the mission was dead or worse. I looked over at the body to see if any eels had emerged but nothing. I was nervous. No. I couldn’t have. The signs were too obvious. He was different. I fell back into the control room. Overwhelmed, the world went dark.
* * * * * *
When I woke I heard shouting and bustling. Men were hovering over me with masks and protective overalls. They lifted me through the top hatch of VILLA2 and carried me out. I was back in Petropavlovsk. It was dark. I didn’t know the time or even the day.
My energy was drained as I tried to resist. I saw huge machines moving to and fro. The whirl and sparks of technicians and engineers constructing on the dock. I closed my eyes.
I went dark.
When I came to my senses I was in a white small room. Pristine. A bed and table were in front of me. A man stood in front of me. Tall and muscular. His face was covered with a mask.
“Sergei. I must say I didn’t expect to see you.”
“Who are you? Where am I?”
“How is Cask-Life? The crew? Did you see anything out of the ordinary down there?”
“What? Did you know? You know there was something down there? The eels. The black tentacles. Hundreds of yellow eyes. Something attacked the original crew!” I was wide-eyed and panicked.
There was no way he was going to believe me but I had to tell him about the creatures.
“Cask-Life’s crew you mean?”
“Yes! They were infected by something”
He looked stern at his notes and began writing.
“How long before they became…brain dead? Memory loss and so forth. Different?”
I stopped for a moment. I never told him what had happened to them, only that they were infected.
“How did you know they turned like that? That’s exactly what happened.”
He stared intently at me. “We knew something strange was going on down there, let’s just say that.”
“We didn’t know what we wanted if we are being honest. Perhaps you would have brought back something of value to us. Clearly, a dead body and a deranged soldier are not ideal.”
I began cursing loudly at his callous indifference.
“How could you just throw us to the lions down there? People are going to know you did this!”
“How would they Sergei? Did you know about the vessel?”
“The vessel? Cask-Life?”
“No Sergei, everyone knows of Cask-Life. I meant if you’re so confident how come you didn’t realise there was another vessel before you?”
“I don’t understand,”
“VILLA2, Sergei. Obviously, if there is a VILLA2 then there was a VILLA1. We had a mission quite like yours prior to your deployment. It was supposed to go and reestablish communications with Cask-Life.”
I was shocked.
“When? What happened to it?”
“We don’t know actually. It’s still lost. I guess you didn’t come across it. Poor crew, where ever they are.”
He jotted down another note. I thought back. The grease on Viktor. He had been working mechanics on a ship but as Mikhail observed, Cask-Life was fully operational. The reactor as well. Someone had turned it on. Had VILLA1 made original contact with Cask-Life? I had no answers but Anatoly and Viktor. They were expecting us.
“We had communications with VILLA1 though which was great. For the most part. They relayed information to us. About the sickness, the frenzy and so on. It was too good to ignore Sergei. So, we sent your crew down. Perhaps you’d be able to shed more light on everything. High Command doesn’t know the full details.”
“You’re not High Command?”
“Oh no, I am from…well look it doesn’t matter. What matters was, there was obviously something dangerous down there. I knew that if we could harness whatever it was we could change the trajectory of the war. VILLA1 was an unfortunate disaster but we needed to know if it was something real. Something tangible. So, we sent you down. VILLA2. In the dark of course. We couldn’t have you going in there guns blazing but to my surprise you confirmed everything. Eels, eyes, and this sort of brain dead memory loss. It’s amazing. I didn’t think you’d be back. I thought you’d just communicate it to us, but clearly, someone destroyed your communications. The fact you made it back here, I must say, I am pleasantly surprised.”
He stopped and looked at me. “One thing though. VILLA1 spoke of a creature. Massive. It was different from the tentacles. It was a glowing sort of creature with bright eyes.”
He looked at his notes.
“They said its eyes were enchanting and beautiful. A huge creature Sergei, human-like and glowing bright?”
I didn’t say a word. That certainly didn’t sound like the eyes we saw.
“Anyway, enough of this” and with that, he stood up and moved towards the door.
“We’re going to keep you here for a bit. See what happens to you. Maybe you’ll turn like the rest. We don’t really know, you’re our first experiment.”
I tried to process the information and what I had seen on the dock.
“Wait. The machinery, the men working outside, what are they doing?”
He opened the door, turned around, and smiled.
“That’s going to be VILLA3.” I knew then that they were going to go back to the ocean.
was the only person from VILLA2 and Cask-Life to get back to the docks.
The well-built man from earlier put down his pen and leaned back in his chair. Clearly, he was writing something of massive importance. It was probably a summary of our talk. Of how VILLA2 confirmed the stories of the lost VILLA1. Even though 5 Soviet men were dead, the sounds of outside clearly indicated that they were going back to the ocean. VILLA3 was nearing completion. A new crew. A new group of soldiers. As I had been told, High Command was left out of the conversation. A small group of rebels were pursuing the potential for alternative weapons in the depths of our oceans. They didn’t expect any opposition. They didn’t expect me.
As he was writing up his notes from our previous conversation. The whirl and noise of VILLA3’s construction outside of the building would work in my favour. It was a combination of noise and the fact, that he was so engrossed in his work that he didn’t even hear me unlock the door with the can opener I had from when Vladimir had given me an MRE in VILLA2. I had also moved slowly and cautiously around to behind where he was. Fortunately, since this was a military dock there was no shortage of weaponry I could avail of.
I took the gun from a holster that was hung up on the wall and pointed it to the back of his head. The act though brought back flashbacks. Vladimir. VILLA2. I had killed him. I still questioned whether or not that was the right decision.
Was he truly turned? Was I turning?
None of that mattered currently. Fueled by feelings of anger I wanted someone to pay for the deaths of my crew, for the ordeal we endured on Cask-Life and to feel pain like Anatoly, Mikhail, Vladimir, Boris, and Viktor felt. If I was able I would have put him in a vessel and sent him to his ‘glowing one’ he spoke of. I not only had to kill him but I had to get out of here. I had to get my story out.
I pushed these thoughts from my mind and open fired into the back of his head. 5 shots. I stopped and paused. The noise continued from outside on the docks. They didn’t hear. Blood poured over the desk and I scrambled for his notes.
I grabbed a pen and some paper. Perhaps I had my own notes that could be of help here. Then I heard it. In fact, it was what I didn’t hear that startled me. The noise stopped. That meant something was happening.
I ran. I picked up everything, notes, pen, and paper. As I opened the large doors of the warehouse I looked out and saw the VILLA3 prototype. It was huge. Twice as big as VILLA2. The noise had stopped because the construction was finished. The crew were wearing specialised equipment and their weapons were high-tech.
We were just mice to be thrown to the cat, these were the real heroes of the Soviet. I was furious. Our lives were worth only what we knew. The rain began to pour heavily and the ocean erupted in anger. Waves upon waves smashed against the shore.
A storm was brewing. I had to keep going.
Blinded by rain and by fear I threw myself deep into the forest. Was it morning, afternoon? What day is it? I knew the answer to none of this. Finally, after sheer exhaustion, I collapsed against a large tree for shelter. Panting, I loosened my iron grip on the notes and paper. I read over the notes that the man had written. Nothing I had not already known. His graphs. His drawings. Alien looking creatures. Half man half tentacles and eyes. Bizarre. It seemed they were looking into hybrids of these creatures.
I felt my neck constricting under the humidity of these forests. At least, I think it is the humidity. I began writing and writing. Everything I can remember. The names and places. What I saw. I think I got most of it.
Yet, I couldn’t stay here. In this forest. How would I get my story out? I knew I had to keep going.
I finally made it to a small town nearby the docks. It was there I planned my route out of Russia and out of his hellish nightmare. The next day, nothing. No sounds. I went back to the forest and tried to make my way back to the dock. When I did, I saw. Everything. Everything was gone. The mission, the infrastructure that was recently built. VILLA 2 and 3, gone. I made my way out of Russia after that. Since High Command was kept out of the loop I was never in immediate danger of the official government trying to suppress my writings. Although I know the team behind Cask-Life and the VILLA vessels definitely wanted the writings I had. I was an eye witness. As far as I know, the only one who saw the creatures and got back to the drylands.
The story of Project Atlantis ends there. Well, my story does. I know they kept looking, they kept sending vessels down. I tried to keep myself invested. I tried to keep active, then I forgot. I just moved on. One day, I stumbled over my notes. The ones I had written in the forest. I almost forget some of the details but I remembered my promise. My promise to tell people what really happened down there.
It has been a long time since Project Atlantis and when I went to the depths of the ocean. I never went back to Petropavsk. I actually never went back to Russia. Although my memories begin to fade quite rapidly. I am grateful that it is natural problems that are the reason my memory has gone and not by any alien illness.
Nonetheless, my memory is slipping, and I am tired.
In my own studies, I could never find anything more about Cask-Life or VILLA1, 2, or 3. I kept as far away from the Soviet Union as I was able. Little hints here and there indicated perhaps they were still seeking the unknown entities. I spoke to former soldiers, experts like myself, and marine specialists from different countries. Most knew nothing of what I said, and those who seemed to told me that they had nothing to say.
VILLA1 supposedly appeared briefly on the northern coast. Onlookers said it looked as it was only built the other day, that there were no signs of deterioration. When I asked for more details, they were sparse, they confirmed what I knew from memory. The shape and style of the vessel but nothing more. It’s not even clear that it was VILLA1.
I have also spoken to someone who claimed to have communication logs from VILLA3. Highly confidential. I may get them soon. Nothing concrete has appeared as of yet but if they can continue the story, I want to know. I cannot say for certain what happened to VILLA1 or VILLA3. Perhaps they’re out there if they are I would like to speak to them. In part that is why I told this story. Perhaps they’re out there like I am.
I heard a story of a smiling man in a Russian town not far from where the docks were. When people started disappearing stories of a smiling man emerged. He was seen in the forests. Perhaps that is my next clue. With the end of the Soviet Union, I may in fact venture back.
If anyone cares, I have given what I knew regarding Project Atlantis. Don’t forget the names. Vladimir and Mikhail, Viktor, Anatoly, Boris, and I, Sergei, and of course don’t forget, do not go back to the depths of the ocean.
There is one thing that I won’t forget. Mikhail would have gotten the medal for what he did.
Credit: Dan C. (a.k.a. DoYouBelieveInThat)
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