5:55 am, September 16
“You’re not going to die, you’re not going to die, you’re not going to die…” Henry fervently whispered the mantra over and over, hoping that by some miracle, if he repeated it enough, he would come to believe it. He was perched on top of a metal stool, body curling over itself as if to protect it, as if to ensure his words were kept only to himself. Every once in awhile a quivering finger would rise and shove his glasses up his sweaty nose. “You’re not going to die, you’re not going to die…”
“Henry,” Jill sighed as she tightened her already sky high ponytail, “you’re not going to die. I know you’re scared of getting stuck down there, but this is what we do; we’re deep sea biologists. This is your first dive and it’s okay to be nervous, but you need to pop a Xanax or take some deep breaths or something to calm down.”
The thing was, Henry knew he was being stupid. Researching deep sea creatures and their environment was his passion and he was damn good at it. It was just the following through part where he was supposed to actually look for them that made him squirrely. Who wanted to be trapped in a tiny, two person submarine under tons and tons of water anyways? Certainly no one sane. And Jill? She was the furthest from sane that anyone could get, but she was an amazing scientist and friend. She had encouraged Henry to share his thoughts about the elusive creatures they were so close to discovering, thoughts that had the potential to solidify his reputation as the next Jacques Piccard. And now he was supposed to locate a needle in a haystack, except the haystack could kill him.
He roughly tugged on his ill-cut and mousy hair, taking a moment to think as he pulled it taut. Jill was right; he could totally do this. So many amazing scientists came before him and they deserved more than some anxious, thirty year old, almost-was, let down to carry on their legacy. He was standing on a precipice, toes over the edge, adrenaline running through his veins. All he had to do was trust -- just until he was in the water -- in the technology that had carried scientist after scientist to the depths and back, again and again. It was that, or lose the past twelve years of his life. And if there was one thing more unappealing than spending the rest of his days at the bottom of the Atlantic ocean, it was going back to college. Having spent ages eighteen to twenty five rushing from lecture hall to lecture hall and missing buses was quite enough, thank you very much.
Henry had gotten lost in a reverie of anxious thought, but a loud voice yanked him out of it.
“HENRY!” Jill shouted, exasperated. When he took a little too long focusing his attention on her small frame, she thumped him in the middle of his forehead. When Henry finally flicked his eyes over to her, Jill had her hands on her hips, a deeply furrowed brow, and a taut smile that suggested anything but happiness. After evaluating his dejected form for another second, her harsh stance melted and her tone turned pleading. “Henry, please. You have to calm yourself down long enough for us to do our job. We’re only going to be in the sub for a couple hours today and besides, Lophius portmanteau,” she pointed towards the whiteboard stationed directly in front of Henry, ”she’s yours, Henry. So you need to suck it up and go find her before some other scientist does.”
Henry gave her a small smile in hopes that it would fend her off long enough for him to assemble some sort of calmed façade. Jill softly pat him on the back once, twice, before she was pulled away to get a crash course on how to rotate the streaming camera on the outside of their sub. More like our coffin, Henry thought bitterly.
The lack of Jill’s overbearing presence found Henry turning his eyes back to the board in front of him. Upon it were paper cutouts of bones fitted together like the world's most complicated puzzle, a single hazy photo of a near unidentifiable shape, notes in hasty chicken scratch about presumed habitats and food sources, cohabitation and bodily functions. None of those were the focal point, though; directly in the middle of the board was a 3D rendering of the Lophius portmanteau, the fish that Henry was responsible for the identification of. He gazed at the protrusion from its skull that dangled its third eye, its enormous mouth that hung open without a single visible tooth, its elongated, membranous tail. He thought about the puzzle pieces this fish had been born from, about how he had suggested that maybe they were only supposed to create a single picture. And they did; there were two pectoral fins on either side of the body, the tail was supposed to look like that of a Barracuda, and the scales definitely mimicked that of a shark’s.
A fresh wave of anxiety rushed through Henry. His right hand abandoned its position on his chin in order to pull his glasses from his face and rub his eyes. Constellations and bursts of color appeared before them. Maybe, if that was what the depths of the ocean looked like, Henry could do this; he could force himself off of this creaky stool and into the high tech shark cage that Jill had named Larry. He could do it, he could. He just had to get his legs to start working, first.
6:42 am, September 16
Alright, so maybe Henry had lied and he couldn’t do this. Because right then, with one foot on an unsteady ladder and the other hovering above the vehicle that would propel him towards his doom, Henry had a few areas of concern. Such included: safety, practicality, time, probability, and why he hadn’t become an accountant like his father. But Jill was waiting impatiently at the bottom of the ladder, thin little fingers jabbing into his ankle.
“Henry, let’s go. Everyone’s going to hate you if you take too long and we have to start tomorrow. Come on!” Jill called up to him.
With one final stab of his inner ankle, Henry set his foot down in front of the ‘copilot’ seat, the one he would be occupying. His other foot soon followed and he was standing inside of a freaking submarine. Jill scampered up the ladder like she couldn’t think of any reason why they shouldn’t be one hundred feet deep in the Atlantic within the next five minutes. But Henry? Well, he could think of a lot of reasons.
Partially propelled by the fear of getting thumped again, Henry folded himself into his designated seat and curled his fingers around the arm rests. His blunt nails dug into the plastic, trying to offer something that could ground him. Jill stepped over Henry’s legs in order to reach her seat and quickly situated herself. As she began to arrange all of her notepads and pens and charts Henry tried to drown out the sound of the double enforced glass sealing around them, as well as the ungodly sound of the metal doors they were suspended over sliding open. It wasn’t until the jolt of the sub being lowered into the water shook them both that a spike of fear stronger than ever before elevated Henry’s heartbeat.
“Jill…” He whispered as his breathing began to get shallow. “Jill, I’m not so sure about this anymore…” His hands were becoming slippery against the hard plastic arm rests and he slid them up and down his thighs to rid them of moisture.
“Henry. Henry, look at me,” Jill made eye contact with him and continued to speak. “You’re going to be okay. We have the emergency radio in case something goes wrong and we need help, and the sub is engineered to force rise if we lose track of time and spend too long down there. It’s only a couple hours, alright?”
“Okay,” Henry whispered, “I can do this. We’re not going to die. We’re not going to die…”
The bionic looking arms lowering the sub detached with a force that sent Henry lurching forward in his seat. Suddenly the submarine was free, and… sinking. The sub was sinking. Henry was in a submarine, and he was sinking, and he was going to die.
“We’re not… I’m not… Jill, we’re going to DIE!” His anxious eyes flicked over everything at once. The surface area of glass untouched by water was quickly decreasing, the power button of Jill’s headset was glowing softly, and Henry’s hands were shaking as they held onto each other for dear life.
“Henry,” Jill's voice was stern and her patience had clearly been left on land. “Just shut up, would you?! Maybe if you say it enough it’ll actually happen!”
10:17 am, September 16
It had been three hours and Henry wasn’t dead yet. He kept telling himself that this was a good sign, that if something bad hadn’t happened by now it probably wouldn’t happen at all. Jill was finally happy that Henry was actually contributing to the expedition, at least. He was sorting through a binder that held everything known or suspected about the Lophius portmanteau. It was speculated to thrive best in areas of a temperature no greater than 2 degrees celsius, and the location and wear of the fossils suggested that it would spend most of its time in deep rocky recesses to lay in wait for prey. Jill had navigated the sub to about fifteen feet above the ocean floor and was managing to hold them steady at a depth of 567 feet.
“Henry!” Jill screamed out of the blue, nearly giving him a heart attack. “Henry, I think I saw something! A tail, I think I saw a tail! It’s the Lophius portmanteau!”
If for only a moment, the spike of anxiety that Jill had caused him was forgotten as he whipped around trying to catch sight of what Jill had seen. The glass dome of the submarine didn’t quite offer a full 360 degree view, but it was enough to allow the majority of their surroundings to be seen. All Henry saw was black, black, and more black. When he faced forward once again the powerful spot light mounted to the underside of the sub allowed him to see a slightly lighter, foggier shade of black. Occasionally a small fish would flit across their field of view and into the rock formation they had been hugging for the past half an hour. Out of the thousands of creatures Henry had learned about over the course of his lifetime, they had seen exactly zero.
11:08 am, September 16
Another forty-five minutes passed with no remarkable sighting. Henry couldn’t help but wonder if this was worth it; all this anxiety and fear, but for what? 8 hours spent in a sardine can, hundreds of feet below sea level where no one could help them? He should have stayed in his lab with his textbooks and his computer, where he could do his job without death looming over his head.
“Jill...maybe we should just go up. I know we thought that we could find the Lophius portmanteau but I don’t think it’s going to happen. It was just wishful thinking,” Henry tried not to let the pleasure he felt at the thought of leaving the sub safely seep into his voice.
Just as Jill let out a soft sigh, something entered Henry’s peripheral vision.
“Maybe you’re right, it seems like-”
“Jill!” Henry tried to interrupt her but his breathless tone hadn’t been enough to catch her attention. He quickly flung his hand out to grab her attention. He was quiet as he pointed off towards the right of their view. There, almost out of the view through the clear dome of the sub, was a long tail that divided into a double sectioned fin. The scales were gently reflecting the light from the submarine. Henry would have bet his life at that moment that it was his Lophius portmanteau.
After Jill snapped her mouth closed, she began to steer the sub to the right in order to gain a fuller perspective of the creature. Just as the machine began to turn the creature darted out of view. It had moved impossibly quick, like the twitch of a muscle; there one second, and gone the next.
Jill continued to turn the sub in hopes that they could catch sight of it. She rotated an entire 360 degrees, but to no avail. Both Henry and Jill’s faces fell. Maybe it was just some sort of cold water Barracuda screwing with them.
Henry’s eyes fell to the open binder on his lap and focused in on the rendering of the fish that had been on the whiteboard. His thumb traced over the double pectoral fins and spiked dorsal fin. Maybe this was just some huge mistake, maybe it was time to give up on Lophius portmanteau and focus on exploits that would keep his feet firmly on land.
With a heavy sigh Henry looked out into the black of the ocean. He wasn’t very anxious anymore, just resigned.
As soon as he turned to Jill to voice his decision on giving up the search, a powerful force crashed into the back of the sub and sent them spinning. Jill let loose a shriek and grabbed onto an arm rest with one hand, bracing herself against Henry with the other. Henry’s heart rate skyrocketed once again and he pressed himself back into his seat to avoid being flung about. They both rapidly searched for whatever had crashed into them. Their heads whipped back and forth across, scanning again and again but unable to locate anything. Several seconds later, Henry caught sight of the tail again.
“Lophius portmanteau,” he breathed. Except, upon closer examination, it almost looked as if the scales of the fish morphed into...human skin, or at least something closely resembling it. Henry’s eyes slowly widened as he took in what he was seeing. It couldn’t be.
Before he could alert Jill another force rammed into the sub, sending them spinning once again. Jill began to cry softly while clutching onto Henry’s arm, looking to him pleadingly, like he would know what to do in such a situation. But he was too busy staring outside of the sub; he had seen another tail, and another, and another… it was like the single creature they saw had multiplied until they were surrounded. In the blink of an eye, they all converged on the submarine and Henry and Jill got an up close look at the creature that had been toying with them.
Beady eyes, ragged shards that seemed to resemble teeth, sickly colored skin melding into scales… this was not the Lophius portmanteau that they had found.
Seemingly without provocation the creatures began to forcefully throw themselves at the sub, over and over. Jill had fallen out of her seat and was scurrying as far back as possible. She was fumbling around looking for the emergency radio, seemingly tossed about and lost from the violent spinning.
The submarine seemed to fill with thick tension, unbridled fear, and something else, something Henry couldn’t place, something ominous. Henry’s entire body became consumed with dread and anxiety, more than ever before. His voice caught in his throat as he began to repeat, in a terrified, whisper, “We’re going to die, we’re going to die, we’re going to die....”
The creatures kept throwing themselves against the sub with reckless abandon, and much to Henry’s horror he saw a small crack beginning to form in the glass dome. He could only watch as the damage grew more and more severe; the larger the cracks got, the shallower Henry’s breathing became. Jill was sobbing in the background, hands twisted into her hair as she rocked back and forth.
Henry’s vision began to narrow as black spots sparked in front of his eyes, his lungs felt smaller and smaller with each passing moment, his hearing began to fade out, as if he was under water. He knew he shouldn’t have let Jill talk him into this. Because now there was water flooding into the submarine, they were going to die, and there was some sort of deep sea creature army bashing the glass in further, sticking their heads through the larger hole, reaching surprisingly human-esque hands towards him…