by Jiksun Cheung 

Sunlight rarely finds its way into depths below two hundred meters, but at half a kilometer there had still been the faintest hint of cobalt bleeding from above as the submersible entered the part of the ocean where darkness was perpetual.

At six hundred meters, he heard the distant hum of a blue whale, long and solitary, followed by a series of deliberate, inquisitive clicks as if the whale was asking: alien thing, why are you here?

At two kilometers, a tail fin snapped past the porthole. The shark was about the length of a car and had a long, pointed snout and jaws that protruded beneath its head. Under the pale exterior lights, its lips appeared to peel back into a grin before disappearing again into the dark.

“Surface,” he said, “you won’t believe what I just saw.”

“Well,” crackled the response, “don’t keep us in suspense, Triton Two.”

The submersible descended the side of a gargantuan sea mount that sloped away endlessly; he guided the vessel past hydrothermal vents that spewed sulphides in violent, roaring belches.

The final time he heard from the surface was at a depth of three and a half kilometers. It had happened in the same way as it had with Triton One: a crack over the radio and then static. When they had reeled up Triton One’s umbilical, the end had been mangled and frayed as if something had severed it. At six kilometers below the surface, he engaged the vertical thrusters.

“Surface,” he said, “Triton Two has touched down on the abyssal plain.” He was aware that no one was listening; indeed he could be alone in outer space for all it mattered. But the system was still recording, and in the event that he didn’t return, there was the black box.

He punched the floodlights. Motes curled in the water. They call it marine snow, the dead and decaying detritus that eventually sifted its way down from the vast ocean above; even at these depths, it was a steady flurry. The seafloor shone a pale yellow as if under a midday sun, but just beyond the periphery of the floodlights, it was a desert void hidden beneath an unimaginable volume of murky black water.

“Surface, adjusting course toward ping location. Visibility about fifteen meters.”

A series of white lumps came into view. It was a whale fall; an enormous skeleton, perfectly intact, its vertebrae like giant ivory ribbons. He wondered what the whale’s final thoughts were as its heart gave out and it began its slow, inevitable descent in the darkness.

At the edge of the light, he noticed a second whale fall. To encounter one was a massive stroke of luck, orders of magnitude more improbable than finding a needle in a haystack. But finding two together?

He angled the floodlights for a better view.

How long he had been staring he did not know, but he realized he had stopped breathing.

There were at least a dozen whale carcasses strewn ahead; most were large enough to be blue whales that easily dwarfed his submersible.

He piloted over the carcasses, capturing as much video as he could. His heart was racing, not from the excitement of having stumbled across the find of a century, a phenomenon that would be studied for generations, but because he felt like a tiny fish alone at the bottom of the sea. Something primal in him had been triggered and he could feel the hairs on the back of his neck bristle.

He wiped his sweaty palms on his overalls, took a few deep breaths, and steadied himself. He pointed the submersible in the direction of the ping.

“Surface, it appears Triton One is somewhere below in an unmarked Hadal trench. There’s nothing here on the map.”

Out of the porthole, the floodlights reflected off the seafloor until the submersible drifted over the lip of the trench and only the blackness of the void was visible. A sudden vertigo overcame him; he gripped the armrests and closed his eyes until it passed.

Every fibre in his body screamed for him to turn back; he had almost convinced himself when he thought of the pilot in the other submersible, alone in the depths.

He followed the trench wall downward.

At seven and a half kilometers, a ghost floated into the light. It was a jellyfish with translucent skin that pulsed magenta, blue, and yellow like a creature from another world. It glided up to the porthole, paused as if beckoning him to follow, and then dove until he could no longer make out its lights.

The dashboard rang.

The sound of the pinging had changed to a proximity warning. The hull vibrated from deep droning coming from below and suddenly he was knocked from his seat. The submersible tumbled. He hung onto the back of the chair, reaching for the vertical thrusters, but it was no use. He was being dragged down into the depths.

Warnings wailed.

The submersible had reached its operational limit; water began dripping from a rivet above his head. The vessel creaked and groaned under the immense pressure. Any moment now, he knew, the hull would collapse and he would be crushed. He took solace in the fact that it would be over in an instant. 

Something moved outside the porthole.

He pressed his face against the glass and saw his father peering out from Triton One. The lights were flashing red. They waved at each other.

“Dad!” he shouted. “We’re gonna be okay—“ In the moment before the hull collapsed, he realized that it had not been his father that he had seen through the porthole but his own reflection in the black monstrous pupil of something that lurked in the depths.

“Surface,” he whispered, “you won’t believe what I just saw.”

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