Abyssal (first draft)
The sub, the tower
TECH has taken the sub out again. He sits at the controls, eyelids heavy and gaze distant. One finger taps with subtly manic energy on the console, but otherwise he is scarcely present. He remembers, briefly, not letting RESEARCHER leave the closet, though she didn’t try hard. They both had things to process.
Outside the light-amplifying cockpit there are deep-sea fish, and a siphonophore. With great economy of movement, he activates the low headlamp, and the fish scatter. The siphonophore remains, drifting. TECH watches it, and the soil rolling by below it. Extreme closeups of its zooids, and of the submersible moving over it so that its ropelike length gets pushed downward by its body. Though he can’t really see it, that motion has TECH’s attention, such as it is.
The range meter approaches 50%. TECH presses forward. The siphonophore ends in a moplike appendage that has a squid caught in it. TECH senses the squid’s suffering, the zooids respirating around it and their stingers dug deep into its flesh. The visual language for this is only brief closeups, interspersed with images of TECH’s hand on the closet door, and on RESEARCHER’s arm.
Without the siphonophore present, there is only the soil, which continues to roll inexorably below the submersible, only dimly lit. TECH is fully dissociated now. The control panel begins to sound the alert that there won’t be power or oxygen for the return trip soon. TECH is completely unaware of it.
His eyes gradually focus again. When TECH realizes where he is, he begins breathing hard, and looks to the range panel. It’s at 30%, or 5.78 kilometers remaining; the lab is 13.5 kilometers away. TECH struggles for breath, gasps, taps on and then hits the range meter. He tugs at his hair and doubles over, stares at the floor and then out into the deep dark ocean in front of him. Eventually he regains some amount of composure, and turns several settings down as low as he can. Turns the light off, life support to the lowest range the computer allows, navigation and GPS off. This extends battery power by a fraction of a percent, and does not affect the viable range. TECH sits and shivers. Eventually he turns those settings back up, and the headlamp.
Viewed from afar, the sub glides along, roughly westward, very slowly. Only a faint impression of its surroundings is visible, that mostly being a flat plane, but suddenly it drops off and the sub is over a seemingly bottomless chasm. TECH stares forward, trembling. Around half an hour later, the readout gives the range at 0.1 kilometers, and a RANGE CRITICAL warning flashes. TECH begins to bury his head in his hands, but he sees something outside the cockpit. It looks at first like a rock or brick, very squared and rectangular, but also old and pitted. AR in the cockpit highlights it with a question mark. Then it passes by, and is gone. Another, a slightly different shape, floats into view soon after. TECH considers tapping on the glass to get more information on it, but doesn’t.
There are more of those, mostly fractured and chipped. They start coming in clusters, sometimes with tiny deep-sea life living on them. TECH turns the headlamp brighter. In the near distance is what looks at first to be a mound of those kinds of shapes, but the viewer outside the submersible can see that it is actually a tower, rising from far below and extending above. Unknown stonelike structures like TECH has been seeing spread from it like tendrils formed by artifacts in a compressed image or garbled sprite graphics. There is an opening in front, a little below the level at which the submersible is moving. TECH stares into it, then directs the sub down.
The sub is now in a kind of corridor, which turns upward. A three-dimensional outline of the sub in its AR view shows the shape of its surroundings: suddenly now it registers the surface. The vehicle takes control from TECH and rises. The sub has to rise high because of the water pressure, but eventually it breaches the surface, and the life support meter begins to rise. TECH lets out a breath nothing indicated he had been holding, breathes heavily, tries to focus his eyes on that meter. He is sitting bolt-upright in the pilot’s seat, scared to relax.
The water begins to gently churn around the sub, and a light labeled “Pressure differential charge” comes on. TECH sits quietly and nervously for a moment, then opens the hatch. The inside of the tower is very lowly luminescent, and there is just enough light to see. TECH steps off onto a platform of the glitch-stuff and tentatively enters the halls beyond. The tower is very old, stable but crumbling. There is nothing to it except the kind of blocks it was constructed of on the outside, no doors or hinges or tubing or anything, it’s like the bare shell of a structure. Blocks hang in the air like outside. TECH observes but doesn’t touch them. He rubs his eyes, breathes the air, and follows the corridor with an eye on the archway he came from.
An empty doorframe leads him to a hallway with a slight upward grade to it. Looking down it, he can see that it curves around, and probably spirals up and down the height of the tower. Everything is evenly lit, but the shadows of what might be figures try to play in the edges of his vision; clearly hallucinations, which TECH brushes off. There are doorways at intervals in the spiral hallway, and TECH inches toward the nearest one.
Inside, there is what looks like a mirror or a window, but it is minimally reflective and nothing can be seen beyond it. Somewhat like polished and nearly flawless quartz. The glitch-matter curls around its edges and fuses to the corners of the frame, as though the tendrils that form the tower grew out of it in the first place. TECH stands in the doorframe and looks at the mirror. His eyes are wide and a little unfocused, and he holds every other breath for a second before releasing it. He is torn between bewilderment, fear, and relief. There is just barely perceptible movement in the mirror, and TECH can’t take his eyes off it.
Into view, in the mirror, steps ALIEN. It emerges as if from shadows, as though only eighteen inches or so of space beyond the mirror is visible. Its eyes meet TECH’s immediately, and he reacts as if he has been shoved backward. He falls to a seated position but catches himself. ALIEN continues to watch him. They stare at one another for a long time, while TECH becomes increasingly agitated.
Finally, he pulls himself away, maintaining a straight face, out into the hall. Out there he tries to calm himself. Several disjointed shots of him controlling his breath, blinking, rubbing his temples. He looks to the arch that leads back to the sub, and the one he has just exited, and turns to look back in. ALIEN is still there.
TECH looks in deliberately, and approaches the window. ALIEN is impassive, but clearly engaged. As TECH studies it up close, his guardedness softens. Now he is fascinated. He backs out the arch and jogs down the spiral hall to the next opening: inside is an identical room, with an identical mirror (though the patterns in the glitch-matter growing from it are different). The same ALIEN is visible there too. It watches him helplessly. The next door down is the same, and the next.
After checking several, TECH goes in and approaches the mirror again. Now he feels around it, presses on the polished stone surface, probes its edges, searches the space for controls of some kind. There is nothing there, the barrier is impenetrable. TECH tries talking but gets no response; ALIEN doesn’t have a mouth anyway. He tries sign language, ALIEN just looks curiously at his hands. In the end, he just sits down and watches ALIEN. After a little while, ALIEN sits down and watches him, too. It’s a long time later that TECH’s device, which is currently only receiving signal from the submersible and nothing in the lab, alerts him that its battery and oxygen are full. Still longer, before he separates himself from ALIEN to make the return trip.