The steel scaffolding of the oil rig surrounded the divers, encasing them in the skeletal spine of the structure. Time mattered down here in different ways. Cognitively Ricky knew that it was just past noon on the surface, and that the hot gulf sun was beating down on his friends. With 300 feet of seawater above his head, it may as well have been dead midnight.
The welding tools felt sure in Ricky’s grip, despite the absolutely crushing level of pressure. When he finished the weld, a small piece of metal flaked off and slithered its way through the water. Ricky wondered how long it would take to get to the bottom, which was well over 2,000 feet below him. He followed the shrapnel with his flashlight until it faded into the depths below. He thought for a moment about deep space, and being so far removed from the universe that he could see no stars, only the black endlessness below and the faintest glimmer of blue above.
There was a certain freedom on the dives. The faded ink on his knuckles could attest to why. He wasn’t cut out for normal work. It was either all in or all out with him, and life at sea had a way of keeping him out of trouble. It was also work where people didn’t ask a ton of questions about your past. They needed people just crazy enough to do the work and the oil companies paid well for it. He took his time, wrenching off old bolts and cutting where he had needed to. It was amazing the amount of things that could go wrong down here, and how often a robot just couldn’t do the job.
The conditions may have been dark but visibility had been better than normal. He despised the dives where visibility ended before the end of his arm. His flashlight sliced through the water with long beams into the dark. He painted his diving buddy with the light and shot it back in the void below. No end in sight. Which reminded him that the work also had no end in sight. 28 days in a three chamber compression rig on the support ship awaited him. It was a tin can kept at 15 times sea level pressure to alleviate the stress of diving and surfacing. If he went up without the diving bell, the gasses in his soft tissue would… find their way out. Under normal diving conditions, someone might have a stroke or embolism. At this depth, the diver would explode like a shaken up beer.
Ricky shook his head, forcing his mind back on the job. It happened more and more as he got older. He thought of near misses and falling equipment. Of sharks in the shadowy light, or just one small malfunction in his suit. Most times a diver will stare into the abyss and return. Sometimes the abyss doesn’t just stare back.
Under the torch the crushed pipe broke free and started its long drop. Out of habit Ricky tried to catch it, but it slipped through his fingers. He followed the piece and his throat seized up. Vertigo washed through his body and he fought the urge to throw up in his helmet.
Below him in the dark was the night sky. Thousands of faint dots littered the darkness below, waving and twinkling on and off in a perfect soft strobing pattern. It stretched far and wide below them, seeming to cover the entire expanse below.
“Donner. Look down. What is that?” Ricky Asked.
“Yeah right bro, that doesn’t work on the surface, it sure as hell won’t work… woah.” Donner said.
“Is it a school of something? Support, can you see this?”
The radio in his ear crackled. “You are coming through just fine Ricky, I’ve never seen anything like it. You are good on O2 for now but finish the job and we’ll monitor the situation.”
“If this is a new species I want naming rights. I saw it first,” Ricky said.
“Roger that. Maybe the brass will buy you out. Lord knows we need the Exxon white shark or the BP Godzilla.”
Ricky spent the next ten minutes trying to stare at his welds, ignoring the flashes of color in his peripheral vision. When he lifted the welding visor on his helmet, Ricky noticed that the stars below had turned into a galaxy. The long arms swung out in spirals, and other more subtle colors started to show. Instead of the radioactive green, there were pieces of blue, a little orange, and rainbow surges that reminded Ricky of the raves he went to years ago.
At the center was a giant cluster, but it was different from the rest. More solid. The tentacles looked like a series of Christmas lights, bulbs in sections. The center of the cluster had deeper round rings of green light. The perfect circles made it look like a target. Coming out of the edges, several of the arms groped in the darkness, but one seemed drawn to the divers. The glowing bulbs reached toward them, moving only a few feet at a time.
“It’s getting closer. It’s not a school of anything and we need to get the hell out.” Donner said. The diver turned and started swimming toward the diving bell that would quickly take them to the pressure chamber.
“You might be right. I want to get a closer look. Otherwise this thing ends up on some YouTube video and all these kids call it fake.”
“Yeah, and if you get closer it’ll be on my channel under ‘Stupid Diver Gets Eaten by Unknown Sea Monster.’”
Ricky waved an arm at him but turned his body and dove deeper, shining his high powered flashlight at the creature. The tentacle altered its course, coming on a more direct path. The tentacle moved slowly and deliberately, wavering slightly with every inch it moved forward. It was less than 50 feet now. The long arm was built of fist sized bulbs, all pulsing in unison with light and water propulsion. The tentacles that connected the bulbs looked to be made of fleshy blue wires with glowing veins.
“You have about three minutes to get back to me before I drag this bell to the surface. Don’t even test me Ricky.” Donner said.
“I think I know what this is. You ever hear of a siphonosphore?”
“Like those Man O’War jellyfish?”
“Exactly. Though not quite a jellyfish. They are huge colonies of smaller creatures making up a singular one. I saw a 30 meter chain of them off the Houston shore line a couple years ago. Was just like this arm.”
“Ricky… I’m serious if that thing is a jellyfish you aren’t in an atmospheric suit. You have a wetsuit on, you don’t know if it’s poisonous, if it stings. You aren’t a biologist. Get over here.”
The arm drifted closer and he adjusted the helmet camera hoping he had it centered. The tentacle crept ever forward.
“Siphonophors are brittle. There is barely anything holding them together. Watch this,” Ricky said. He reached his hand out and dodged the last bulbous nodule, which opened and closed in perfect rhythm. He grabbed the cord connecting the last jelly from the next a few feet down. He yanked, expecting it to break apart like cobwebs.
The tentacle wrapped around his arm latching where it could, and unseen barbs in the tendril bit down through the suit.
Ricky screamed in his helmet as the he felt himself being pulled downward by the tentacle. He reached for his knife and sliced through the ropy fiber. The severed bulbs clung to his wetsuit, still wriggling and trying to fight for better purchase.
Donner was screaming orders along with the surface crew. Ricky couldn’t pick out what they said but knew exactly what they meant. Get back to the bell. Get out.
He turned looking for Donner and the diving bell but was disoriented in the darkness. He located the bright white work lights and could barely see the outline of the rig. He started swimming, knowing he was climbing faster than he should.
The bell was at least a minute away when he saw the tentacle reaching below Donner. “Just go! Send the bell back down when you are in the can!”
“Okay.” Donner said, and punched the button to elevate. The tentacle wrapped around the platform and was jerked upward. The wench pulled the bell, as well as the tentacle, completely taught, slowed, and then snapped the arm and kept going upward. Dozens of feet shot up with the capsule.
“You son of a bitch. You’re supposed to wait.” Ricky shouted into the earpiece.
“You told me to go,” Donner said.
“Yeah, but not really,” Ricky huffed, swimming as fast as he could. “It’s a heroic gesture met by another heroic action. You coward!”
“That’s not how this works!”
Ricky swam faster and for a brief moment raised his middle finger in the direction of Donner. He needed the rig and its scaffolding around him, anything but the darkness of the open ocean or the light show pulsing below him. Gleaming tentacles chased after him when he looked behind, and the beast’s body got closer he realized its breadth. He thought that you could play a full football game on the top of this thing without touching any of the glowing rings on its top.
On Ricky’s right arm, the tentacles started to burn. They were making their way through the wetsuit, finding the seams between his glove and suit and piercing where they had barbs. He was thankful for the chill of the ocean water already making his hands numb, but it was quickly turning from an irritation to an all-out burning. He ignored that his swimming was sending him slightly to the left as the arm began to weaken and focused on kicking his feet.
When Ricky finally reached the scaffolding he stopped for a moment to rest on a girder and tried to pull the tentacle free but it was fused with the skin. Pulling on it only seemed to rip at his own arm, not to remove the sinewy member.
He remembered briefly that some creatures had taste buds at the end of their tentacles, and there was a remote possibility that this thing was savoring his skin, digesting it through chemicals. The sound of the radio in his ear was a warbley mess that he couldn’t fully understand. He wanted to sleep to just be back in his bed.
From below, tendrils floated up, hundreds of them, some thicker than others, but they drifted slowly. Every nodule between the linked jellyfish was about a yard apart, and each glowed with that intense green yellow of a glow stick. The randomness gave way to symmetry and the jelly arms formed perfectly straight lines going back and forward, making a three dimensional grid in all directions. Perfect squares for hundreds of yards in each direction.
Below him the central mass of the beast came to eye level. The tendrils moved out of its way, bowing outward and then going straight again as the living mass approached the diver.
Ricky focused for a moment. Staring at the body that looked like a fleshy Taj Mahal in the deep. Smaller tendrils came out from the mass, finer and more mobile. There were thousands of them and they looked like fiber optic wiring. Ricky tried to swim again, but only went a few feet before being entangled by the mass of fibers.
There was a focused burning feeling as the small tendrils shredded Ricky’s suit and dug into his body. The flesh burned but Ricky was feeling further away. A larger tentacle crawled up his spine, sealing itself in place before burning downward. He felt the skin give way as the tentacles fused into his nerves.
A jolt of electricity took Ricky from his stupor into bright and searing clarity. The being in front of him pulsed with different colors as it seemed to read him. In the echoes of his mind he could almost hear something, but was instead awash with strange emotions. There was his fear, then something else, something more primal. A mix between curiosity and hunger. More than that, the thoughts and feelings were legion, as the thousands of organisms felt through the main consciousness.
Ricky talked into the mic, hoping someone might hear his last words. “It’s a network. A colony. One from many, like neurons making the brain.”
Even in the dim light of the rig he could see that the core was a massive network of smaller creatures. The shifting lines and undulations showed perfect harmony, but each cell was an individual.
The only option left was for Ricky to make his intentions clear. He knew the beast felt his fear, there was no stopping that, but he wanted it to know it meant the creature no harm.
He wanted to live, to see his friends again, and to feel air on his skin. He focused images into his thoughts, hoping the monster could understand.
The tentacles started to pull again. Ricky tried to grab the steel beams but was ripped away. The great monster started to sink. The tentacles pulled him closer to the giant body, which split wide opening like a zipper and closing behind it. Clouds of jellyfish and connective tissue pushed him through to the center and the entire world faded to black.
It had been three days since the last images from Ricky’s headcam had come though. Donner had watched it more times than his heart could bear, but being stuck in the decompression chamber for another four days, he couldn’t be bothered to do anything else.
He looked at the last frames. A great open space with creatures clinging to the walls. Men in green uniforms, desiccated and wired into the walls with the other creatures, tendrils moving between rib cages and out of mouths.
In the last moments before the feed went dark, Ricky was turned, face to face with a woman in pilot’s gear and a worn scarf floating in the water. Her skin was warped and pruny and tendrils went through her nose and out of one eye socket. In the other, the eye moved, staring directly at the camera and blinked.
Donner walked to the airlock of the chamber, and considered his options. One small move and the chamber would depressurize. The 15 atmospheres of pressure would turn to 1 in an instant, and the gasses in every cell would find the nearest exit. It would surely be an explosive finish to his life.
Instead he held back, turned around and took a flash drive to the laptop. The suits had been begging for all the footage since the moment the attack happened, but they couldn’t get to him in this chamber. He saved the video to a flash drive and covered it in saran wrap to swallow when the time came. He sat and contemplated how to draft his message to Wikileaks. He thought about the void in the chamber, and how Ricky might still be something down below. All Donner knew was that he wasn’t going on a ship again, and he damn sure wasn’t going near the ocean. There wasn’t enough therapy in the world to make that happen. He hoped the video might have the same effect on some of his colleagues. At least he had a title for his video. “Stupid, Heroic Diver Eaten by Sea Monster.”
Tony Southcotte: Tony hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.