Previous parts: 1
The metal sphere on the ceiling shuddered as some heavy mass inside suddenly began to spin. Aside from feeling the torque when it began, there was also a low pitched, barely audible hum. “Four thousand RPMs. Ten thousand. Twenty six thousand RPMs. Amperage looks good. Displacement in ten on my mark. Mark.” Zach flashed a maniacal grin. The first of many. “Hold onto your nuts.”
I should’ve. When the ten seconds were up, everything kinda dropped out from under me. I puked up my breakfast and watched it billow away from me in a slowly spreading cloud of weightless spherical blobs. The ship was still there but everything around it was an incomprehensible fractalized mess of kaleidoscopic facets. Like a funhouse mirror times a billion.
Suddenly we were back at sea. The puke, hanging in the air a moment ago, now fell and splattered the deck. When Zack saw it, he groaned. “That better not stain. I’ll get you a mop.” I stood dumbfounded, clutching my still quivering stomach, wide eyed and terrified. “What the fuck was that!” Zack turned and took a second to realize what I meant. “The jump? Don’t worry about it. Saved us weeks of travel time! You know what they say about gift horses.”
That wasn’t going to cut it. “No, you tell me what the fuck that was.” I didn’t mean for it to come out so menacing but honestly I’ve never felt so shaken. He took it in stride. “There are more things in Heaven and Earth, blah blah, you’ll know what I’m cleared to tell you and nothing more. You might say that we’re collectors of lost technologies, forbidden arts, valuable secrets buried by the passage of time and unfavorable politics of the day. You’re still good to dive, I hope?”
I laid down in the cabin for the next hour, fighting to keep my insides on the inside. Holograms maybe? Or they’d slipped me drugs. But when? The more I asked the kid, the more he insisted I didn’t need to know that in order to dive. A reminder of the pay waiting for me after we returned to shore did a great deal to restore color to my face.
“How much Orgone is left?” I was up and about, prepping my dive gear while the two traded nonsense phrases. Glancing at the glass jars, the glow did seem to be dimmer now. “Damn, 34%. Did we really go that far? Oh well. Looks like we’ll get some use out of the accumulator after all.”
Zach sighed. “This is why I said we should have taken the saucer.” The skipper gestured dismissively, eyes wide. “Not with me piloting it. If you’re willing to set foot in something powered by Vril you’re braver than I am.”
The big aluminum tuning fork dealie folded up out of the floor, then extended telescopically another ten or so feet overhead. I felt a slight pressure on my inner ear as it activated. Curiouser and curiouser. If it really was all for show, they’d put quite a lot of money and work into making it convincing.
“This is the spot. Gear up, you two. This thing will take at least an hour to refill the jars, but you’ll have maybe half that time at the bottom. It’s not real deep but it’s below the recreational limit for scuba.” The old fart knew more about diving than I would have guessed. Below 21 feet or so the pressure starts dissolving nitrogen from your air supply into your blood.
Takes time to force enough of it in there to be dangerous on the way up though. That’s what dive calculators are for. Tells you how long you have at a given depth before the nitrogen in your blood reaches unsafe levels. You can stay longer than that, if you have a deco chamber. But I didn’t see one on the boat.
“Any provision for decompressing?” The old man’s eyes lit up and he hurried into the cabin, returning with a duffle bag. “Inflatable model. Used only once before, works like a charm. The compressor’s in a separate bag, I’ll set it up while you’re down there.” I don’t gamble with my life and I said so. “No, you’ll set it up now. I’m not diving until I’m sure you have the means to return me to pressure if I need it.”
It was the work of twenty minutes to get the compressor, hose and inflatable sac hooked up and confirm it was in good working order. I worried I might’ve alienated them somewhat by the demand, but the saying in my line of work is that there are two kinds of divers: The bold ones, and the old ones. There are no old, bold ones. If you don’t play it safe, you don’t last long.
“The sticker says last inspection was two years ago. You’re supposed to get it checked every year. Ever heard of the Byford Dolphin incident? Pressure differentials do not fuck around.” He seemed to take it personally and fell all over himself to assure me the seals were immaculate. Zach was less apologetic. “If you want to go back, we can take you soon enough. That’ll mean another displacement event, though.”
Way to call my bluff. ‘Displacement’ event, huh? Fuck that. I’ll take my chances in the water. I suited up and walked the kid through his dive checks. Made me nervous that he was so green. When asked, he produced a PADI card for open water diving. Good enough for me but only barely. They never told me I’d be babysitting.
“You gonna clue me in to what we’re looking for down there?” He tested his regulator. It puffed satisfactorily. “Oh, don’t worry. You’ll know it when you see it. We’d go by sub except it’s being serviced at the moment.” Oh, they have a sub. Naturally. But then, if they have a fucking mystery space-boat of light and wonder, I supposed a sub wasn’t such a stretch. Who are these guys exactly?
Splashdown was invigorating. The water was some of the warmest I’d ever dove in. The vis was astonishing too, easily 200 feet. This is the kind of water I pay good money to dive in when I’m not working and kicked myself for leaving my camera at home. Then again, the vague sense of what these guys were involved in led me to suspect they would’ve confiscated it in the car.
Zach immediately headed down and as I turned to follow, I at once understood what he meant earlier by “unconventional dive site”. The details were hazy but I could make out a shallow ravine below, lined with corals. And nested within that ravine, a sprawling complex of glass chambers connected by enclosed passages. The shock nearly made me spit out my reg.
We had to stop a few times on the descent so the kid could equalize. I took the opportunity to soak in the beauty of it. Architecturally, the buildings somewhat resembled ornate Victorian greenhouses.
Whoever designed the place clearly valued aesthetics and wanted a nice view of the surrounding ocean. One of the structures within view even had trees growing inside. A seafloor arboretum? Surely now I’ve seen it all. Again I reached for my absent camera. Oh well. Nobody would believe the photos weren’t doctored anyway, I thought. Sour grapes.
We came up under the floor of the nearest structure. They were all elevated somewhat off the seafloor on pilings. I could see the corner of what must be the ballast tray those pilings attached to protruding from the sand. So these things were weighed down by sand. They must’ve floated them out here, sucked up sand from the bottom by dredge pump to weigh them down, then connected them to each other with the passages.
A project like this would’ve employed no small number of engineers. How could it have been kept a secret? I could see why it didn’t show up on sonar, situated down in this little ravine as it was. Strange feeling, looking at the placid surface of the water from below, when you’re a good 90 odd feet below the actual surface. Like a rippling mirror. We poked our heads up through it and took off our masks.
I smelled the air and, once convinced it was fresh, signaled for Zach to remove his regulator. He had a coughing fit. “Salt water down the wrong pipe, huh? God damn would you look at this place.” We were relatively deep as conventional scuba diving goes but shallow enough that, with a bit of squinting, I could see the surface undulating gently far overhead. It cast down the most entrancing patterns of light on the floor. I set my watch to timer mode, and entered 30 minutes.
“What is this place? Who built it and how come I’ve never heard of it? Or can’t you tell me.” Zach eased off his tanks and set them against the wall. Only when he’d removed as much of his gear as he intended to did he answer. “The Institute has its fingers in many different projects. And has been around for longer than you’re liable to believe. Back in the seventies, there was something of a boom for manned undersea exploration. At its peak there were dozens of seafloor labs in operation around the world. Sixty nine were built, all told.”
I knew that much. The Navy’s Sealab program. Jacques Cousteau’s Conshelf projects. I set my own tanks down next to his, glad to be rid of the weight. The BCD was the worst offender in that respect but the belt of lead weights for buoyancy neutralization was also a painful burden out of water. Would there be a welcoming party? Didn’t look like it.
Stay Tuned for Part 2!