[Original Novella] There is Light Below, Part 3

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“Officially the Navy’s man in the sea program ended after sabotage led to a death during Sealab III. In fact, they continued in secret. Now Naval submarine supply depots dot the continental shelf, overcoming the modern nuclear submarine’s only significant endurance limitation: The food supply.” I’d never heard any such thing. But then I didn’t know a place like this existed until today, either.

“The Institute dabbled in this pursuit as well. We’re standing inside the results of that endeavor. A series of smaller experimental habitats built up the experience necessary to eventually construct this facility in 1976. Our interest was in the beneficial physiological and emotional effects of living under pressure. That’s why the whole facility is ambient pressure. Same inside as out. Hence why none of the structure is cylindrical or spherical and there’s plenty of big flat windows, yet it doesn’t implode. The only significant stresses are buoyancy related.”

Like an immense, live-aboard diving bell. Not so different from that coral reef research base that Florida International University operates in Key Largo. Just a thousand times the size. No single building looked to be taller than perhaps three stories, there were just so many of them. Absolutely unprecedented so far as I knew.

“Under moderately increased atmospheric pressure, due to the increase in available oxygen, wounds heal faster. Sleep is more restful and regenerative. There is a slight, pleasant intoxication called the martini effect which makes you jovial, cooperative and slow to anger. Except toward those not under the same influence.”

We entered a grand lobby with those tacky white egg-shaped chairs strewn about and curvilinear couches following the contours of the outer wall, with ugly orange cushions. Wall paneling in most places was beige with a red stripe running along the top. I would discover soon after that this stripe indicated by color coding which portion of the complex we were in.

“As was discovered by the crew of the Tektite habitat, the difference in state of mind between those under pressure and the topside support crew who weren’t created severe friction. The Tektite crew felt they did not understand the day to day difficulties of living and working undersea. They became insular and familial with one another, but increasingly hostile to anyone else. This was the unforeseen psychological dimension of undersea living. Some felt it lent itself very well to colonization, as it would intensify the desire for independence from land.”

The picture became a bit more clear. “So you dropped the big bucks to build this place and populate it with your Institute loonies only for them to stop returning your calls.” Zach pried at a rusted switch. As it no longer seemed operable, he asked me to help him force the door. Putting my shoulder into it, between us it was easy work. The sliding doors made me smirk. Very “Star Trek”, except that they were woodgrain.

“That’s it in a nutshell. They went their own way. Unfortunately we’d built a network of torpedo turrets to defend this place from outside interests, making it impossible to take it back from our wayward comrades. The lights, heaters, life support, dehumidifiers and whatnot are all powered by a single vril staff adapted to output AC. The Institute doesn’t have many of those so when these fuckers ran off with one of ’em it was a severe blow.”

All of that just rolled out of his mouth as if I had any clue what a Vril staff is. I didn’t ask for clarification as I anticipated it’d just be more balls to the wall insanity, which I have very little patience for. The corridor linking this building to the next was quite like some I’ve seen in public aquariums, for visitors to walk through and take photographs. Except of course this particular aquarium was inside out. Mucky patches of marine growth coated the exterior such that plenty of light got in, but it was tough to get a clear view outside.

“Does anyone still live here?” I hadn’t seen anyone, but lights and life support seemed to be working. “No idea. Part of what I came to ascertain. You’re here for your diving expertise. And as a negator. Don’t ask, the more you know about that the less useful you are to me.”

I didn’t care, so I didn’t ask. This structure was round, perhaps a hundred feet across with a squat domed roof. Reinforcing ribs made of what looked like rusty brass radiated from the top down the curvature of the dome, then down the walls to the floor. Holding down the immensely buoyant air inside, rather than resisting pressure.

Much of it was heart rendingly beautiful. The Navy habitats I’d seen photos of were all ugly utilitarian cylinders with tiny portholes and squat little legs elevating them up off the seabed. This place was a work of art, both by comparison and on its own merits.

Here and there, hydroponic planters supported immense ferns and a variety of flowers. Some did, anyway. In others, all the plants were wilted and brown. Depending on which of them still had working pumps to bring them fresh water. I assumed that’s why there were bugs. Flies mostly, zipping about our heads. And why there was a bug zapper hanging from the ceiling. Didn’t expect to see one of those down here.

I chuckled at all those little flies mindlessly circling the glowing blue light, closer and closer until a blinding white arc of electricity leapt out and fried them. This module must have been a public meeting place. Something like a park. Benches situated around the planters suggested idle time spent chatting about whatever weird shit residents of an undersea complex would discuss. Mermaid titties? Cthulu? I laughed, prompting Zach to look at me quizzically.

Through the next corridor was an oval chamber. This one looked to be set up for yoga. The floor was lined with padded mats. A faded poster on the wall depicted various colored symbols arranged vertically against the figure of a cross legged man. “Seven tips for aligning your chakras!” It said. The bullet points below were too small to read from this distance and I didn’t care for yet more hippie claptrap just then.

The next section was disc shaped. Mostly opaque save for large round windows arranged in a circle around the upper half. I checked my watch. 22 minutes remaining. “What are we looking for exactly? This place is derelict.” Zach flipped through a set of books on a shelf under the poster. “I didn’t come here to give you a tour of the place. Keep your wetsuit on. There’s a reel of magnetic tape someplace that we need to return with.”

Sounded about right. I remembered my dad owning a reel to reel music player, he was big into audio gear and had a hell of a record and 8-track collection. But I guessed the reel would more likely contain data in this case, if it was important enough to go to all this trouble to retrieve.

Knocking on the glass I discovered it to be acrylic instead. Should’ve guessed. No sense in building so many windows into a place like this out of anything that’s easy to shatter. The marine grime was absent on this side of the hull, affording a fairly unobstructed view of countless squat little buildings in the distance. More of the complex. No way to see it all in the 18 minutes left before we’d have to head back up.

“Here we go. This one’s got a map.” Zach folded a brittle, tattered map out of the book and examined it. After a few seconds he pinpointed whatever part of this gargantuan network he expected to find the tape in and we set off. On the way I spotted little white spherical device I recognized as Weltron 8-track player. My dad had the same one. Mom wanted to offload it at a garage sale once and it set off a shouting match that lasted for hours.

I paused to look at the tapes. The soundtrack from “Xanadu”, and “Age of Aquarius” by The 5th Dimension. Seemed appropriate. “No dawdling, it’s quite a ways and we’re low on time.” Fuckin’ taskmaster all of a sudden! I reflected on the fat green stacks waiting for me, bit my tongue, and followed him through a set of double doors into the next module.

This one was set up as a greenhouse. They all looked the part but this one actually was filled with plants. Overgrown to the point that it was tough trekking through all of it. My dive knife was sorely inadequate, what I really could’ve used was a machete. The air was humid and smelled odd. “They must keep the CO2 and moisture higher in here for the plants. Strictly as a supplemental food supply. They’d need a hundred times as much for it to be any help with life support.”

There were tomatoes, strawberries, lettuce, carrots, all manner of herbs and what looked to be the greasy brown remains of various fruits and vegetables having long since fallen to the floor and decomposed. After that we passed through what looked to be a mess hall, a school, a medical center the shelves of which were lined with “naturopathic remedies” and differently colored crystals, then what looked to be a marine biology lab.

Stay Tuned for Part 3!

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