We have conquered deep space, they said. There is nothing at the bottom of our own seas that could be of any worth, they said. But there are always voices of dissent. And there is always something of worth in the places that are beyond our sight, beyond our reach. It just depends on your definition of what is worth it.
They say we have a deeper understanding of outer space then we do of the seas beneath us. It was just as harrowing and impossible a task for our engineers and scientists to design a craft that could withstand the pressures and the cold of the deep sea, as it was for their predecessors to create the crafts that now traverse deep space.
Nestled within one such deep-sea craft, my husband and I are descending into the waters, aiming for depths far deeper than any human being has ever achieved. We were the first of the pelagonauts, from the Greek word “pelagos” for “sea” and the Latin “nauta” for “sailor.” The term (and how to pronounce it) is still under debate. Who knows? Maybe they’ll have figured it out by the time we get back. My heart swells as the reality hits me. We don’t exactly know when we’ll be back. I take a deep breath and glance at the readout of my vital signs. There was a small fluctuation—within range—in some of my readings. Despite all the meditation exercises, the breathing techniques, the building of stamina, the practice runs in that accursed fake ship on the bottom of that accursed swimming pool to help us deal with claustrophobia, it was expected that we would have some fluctuations.
We’ll be the first, but not the last, I hope. This was our first mission, but not the last, I hoped. As much as we had to see at the bottom of the sea, there were equal wonders waiting for us at the surface.
One of those wonders was our son. He had joked, with a touch of bitterness, that he might be married by the time we return. That when we surfaced, he might be handing me my first grandchild. I’m glad I couldn’t tell how my vital signs were doing in that moment. Bittersweet. I never truly understood the feeling of the word before, the taste on my heart.
I have time for such thoughts. The descent will take a long while. There are several different clocks in the ship. I’m trying not to glance too often at the one right in front of me. We are keeping an eye on the ship’s status, on our descent, on each other, so to speak. We call it a ship, but it’s more like a pod. There isn’t enough room to actually get up or even to fully face each other. We have to stayed seated, and do our exercises to keep our circulation going with the built in equipment. I’m sure someone has already converted some version of our chairs into a late night infomercial product. “Exercise and lose weight while you lounge.”
I do some bicep curls. It’s my shift to be awake. There’s nothing to see out there at our current depth. It’s all black, black unending.
We spotted an anglerfish a few hours past. My husband had chuckled and wondered if the fish thought we were a rival. The ship’s lights were designed to mimic the bioluminescence produced by some deep sea creatures like the angler, who seemed to eye us suspiciously before she darted past us.
Naturally, it took a lot for us to get where we were now. It had been many decades since the first person reached the bottom of Challenger Deep, once the deepest part of the sea. That trip, a couple of hours of descent maybe, was like a blink of the eye compared to what we had planned. Not many had repeated the feat of reaching the bottom of Challenger Deep. And no one had gone deeper. The only way to have done so was to drill. Or to find a deeper place that had somehow escaped detection.
The technology to travel deep into the oceans had existed for decades before we began our endeavor. But no one was going there because it didn’t have a good return on investment I guess. The seas are nowhere near as vast as outer space, and maybe didn’t seem as important by comparison. That all changed about twenty years ago, when I had just started college and my husband was still a junior in high school.
Based only on a signal that seemed to indicate the existence of subterrestrial intelligence, the endeavor to traverse the deep seas was launched. The signal had been sent out for decades, perhaps longer. Humanity had only began to detect and interpret it as a meaningful message by accident, when the setting on an underground exotic particle detector was adjusted (or so the story goes—an accidental discovery being much more romantic than purposeful, painstaking, and meticulous observation).
The interpretation of the signal was controversial. But it was convincing enough for a small group of rich philanthropists to fund a project, not just to send an answering signal down, but to send people down into the depths to make face-to-face contact. Those who were involved in that first attempt meant well, but while it was decently funded, it was poorly organized and poorly executed. Too many committees. Not enough decisions. Too many expert opinions. Not enough experimentation. Too much debate about safety. Not enough application of safety principles and practices. It didn’t go far. In the name of transparency (which is good), the project had way too much publicity (which is only good if there’s something to show the public, and there wasn’t). Those involved claimed that the public expected miracles. That great endeavors took time and effort and a great deal of uncertainty. That may be true, but the public isn’t as stupid as some seem to think they are. The endeavor was going nowhere. It was spinning its wheels. It had no true leader. And no focus. That may seem a strange thing to say for a project that had a clear mission: get to the bottom of the sea and meet whoever was down there.
The project began to be ridiculed in the press. Out of embarrassment, frustration, an end to patience, those who were initially onboard jumped ship one by one, forsaking the enterprise for other causes that they judged to be equally if not more worthy. Humanity still has many ills to heal. Moreso, the project had little to show for its years of operation.
By comparison, projects that aimed for the stars had accomplished the monumental feat of sending people out into space through our own solar system and even beyond to the next. Bases have been established on the moon and on Mars. The application of quantum entanglement has made it possible to communicate without delays. Genetic engineering has made it possible for people to survive in space. Advances made for the endeavor into space have even trickled down to use among the general population of the planet (like the popular anti-aging technologies developed for astronauts traveling beyond the solar system). Some of those technologies could have been adapted for manned exploration of the sea. But after the project’s failed attempts to do so, after its failure overall, many began to believe once again that it was not worth it to do something that unmanned probes and explorers could do more safely and more cheaply. They were the same arguments that were once used for manned space exploration. And yet…
Space was a worthy frontier.
Our own seas…well, they were beneath us.
Warehouses were shuttered. Building leases expired. Equipment was repurposed or sold off. Documentation was filed away. The project was not-so-quietly shut down. Project Pontus, named for a primordial sea god, had been in the public eye for five years. So the whole world watched, with crossed arms and shaking heads. Someone came across a memo where the mission was tagged “project: forsaken.” That’s how it became known in the press, as “Project Forsaken.” When we resurrected the project, we kept the name, out of defiance at first, and then out of a peculiar kind of pride.
We had to contend with the same issues that Pontus had had to contend with. But it surprised us that the doubt about our seriousness, competence, organization and so forth quickly evaporated when all saw proof we were doing things differently. We were transparent and open. But we were also all business. We had consultants from the space exploration industry: bureaucrats, engineers, astronauts. We had an organizational chart and strict chain-of-command.
But within those strictures, we had an anything goes policy. The project’s motto was “Inveniam viam aut faciam.” It was a quote attributed to a Roman general who had before him the task of traveling a long and difficult path. It was Latin for “I will find a way or make one.” We fostered creativity and thinking outside of the box at the designing and engineering levels. We encouraged silliness and romanticism about the sea (the world needed more of the latter anyway). There were poetry slams. There were models of potential vessel designs carved out of mashed potatoes and served at potluck dinners.
Where we were strict about rules was in the focus and management of the project. There were so many components, and they had to be handled at the right time, simultaneously, staggered, consecutively. The training of the pelagonauts. The handling of inquiries and challenges from the press on behalf of the public. The funding challenges. The building of the deep sea core vessels. (The vessels too were given the base codename “Forsaken.”)
Those were the practical challenges. There were the other things, the things that we couldn’t address. Not really. Not unless we did what we set out to do. What unique argument could there be against responding to this purported message from the depths?
What about the danger of exposing our surface world to the influence of an intelligence from down below? What about those who feared that the message was from unknowable cosmic gods sleeping in the core of our planet, who should not be disturbed lest they bring unimaginable chthonic horrors to the surface? Let them sleep, some said. Others said that the signal was not from something sleeping within the Earth, but from Earth itself, or herself. From Gaia. They claimed that the message was not meant to be an invitation, but a warning. For amongst the ills that humanity had yet to heal, massive disturbances in the natural order of the planet was one of the gravest.
Still others believed that the signal was not from any intelligence, native or otherwise. That it was just a natural signal coming from the planet that we did not have the technology to detect before, but that it was no less dangerous because it was inspiring some (us) to embark on a mission to go where human beings were not yet ready to go, and may never need to go now that we had access to the surface of other planets. There would be no need to colonize our seas to relieve the burden on our lands. There would be no need to explore the deep seas for resources. Rather we could leave the seas and oceans alone for once.
“Penny for your thoughts?”
I take a deep breath, pulling out of my reverie. I turn my head and see half my husband’s face. I smile. Pennies were still in circulation when we were both born. Our son marveled at the thought that there once were pennies galore and that they were practically worthless.
“Just thinking about all the not-so-cosmic questions we’re on the verge of answering,” I said.
“We are certainly past the point of no regrets, my dear captain.”
I smiled again, but gave no reply.
We’d gone through the training so many times that even in the midst of my reminiscing, I’d performed all the checks and made all the necessary adjustments, and even snapped a few shots of what I thought might be plants or animals. If I had actually captured any clear images at this depth, they were most certainly of creatures that no human had ever laid eyes on before. We were seven leagues down. Almost halfway there.
The Challenger Deep in the Mariana Trench had once been the deepest part of the ocean, but there was at present another Deep in the ocean in the same trench. It appeared “overnight” almost twenty years ago, and with no disturbances to sea levels, tides, or currents. It was probably a coincidence, but it showed up years after Project Pontus had been shuttered. The Pontus Deep, it was called, in honor of the project. And that is its official name. Unofficially, people call it the Forsaken Deep.
The message we were sent decades ago. The message that had inspired Project Pontus had simple instructions beyond a greeting. We had to find the deepest part of the ocean and just descend as far as we could. We would be met halfway and helped along the way. We figure it must have taken our undersea pen pals some time to devise and build the Deep, just as it was taking us time to devise and build a vessel to reach it. Maybe that ultimately was the real reason the Project Pontus failed. So much of the endeavor was based on trust. Maybe we just decided that we couldn’t afford to be so trusting of our deep sea neighbors.
None of the thirteen pelagonauts who had trained for the mission had died in an accident, nor had there been any major injuries or loss of life through the whole of the project. But in the end, it was decided we would only send two people. The ship could fit four, but the risk was too great to send more than two, at least for the first excursion (as we optimistically called it).
As expected, all thirteen fought to be one of those two chosen. But there were two people who had every right and authority to call dibs. The married couple who not only provided funding from their own pockets, but were both engineers on the project. Us.
We designed major parts of all five final Forsaken ships. Each one slightly different, optimized for different purposes. We built parts of the ship we were traveling in with our own hands. We fought for our place on Forsaken Four. All of us had made sacrifices, gone through hurdles, spent blood-sweat-and-tears, strained our bodies and our sanity. At last it was decided that we deserved the privilege of the glory and the burden of the risk.
By the time we were ready to begin our first test descent—this was five years ago—the signals that had continued coming from the depths had been confirmed to be unmistakably intelligent. The instructions given to us had been translated and re-translated, and verified and re-verified. The whole world had become enthralled. One prominent entrepreneur contacted us and told us he wanted to join the project. Then another, his rival intriguingly enough, followed. Then a few government agencies provided support, sites and personnel, and we tasked an international non-profit organization with overseeing the project’s accountability. Project Forsaken grew and grew.
But in the end, it was just about two seafarers, preparing to make their dreams come true, or die trying. We knew this when we got married. We knew it when we had our son. When he was growing up, he wanted to go to space. He wasn’t too impressed by his parents’ endeavor to travel below (at first). When he began to realize that we both meant to go, that we didn’t know if we would make it, that we didn’t know when we would be back, he felt all the things we expected him to feel. He wondered why we would abandon him. He asked why we would even have a kid, knowing what we intended to do. He wondered why having him in our lives didn’t change our minds about risking our lives. It wasn’t as if we were doing it to save the world. Over the past year, since turning fifteen, he had stopped really talking to us other than the absolute minimum. He kept his grades up. He was great with everyone else. He was proud of us when asked in public, and he wasn’t good at faking it, so we knew that his pride was sincere. But so was the resentment we could not begrudge him, the sadness.
It didn’t help that there was a very vocal part of the public that expressed the same disappointment and disapproval that our son did. Why couldn’t one of us stay behind, they wondered? As far as I was concerned, my son had every right to question our decision, but it was no one else’s business. Maybe I am a horrible mother. My kid is in therapy because I’m leaving him, I’ve been planning on leaving him since before he was born.
He spoke to us this past Thanksgiving. Told us that it wasn’t just us. We were big news in the news, but in his life, we were just one of the big changes that he was going through. He loved us, he said. He wanted to make sure we knew that. But he was still angry. And tired. He let me hug him and hold him. And his father enveloped us both.
The rest of the holidays were different. On Christmas day, we found a joint gift he left for us under the tree. He didn’t come down for presents or breakfast. We felt conflicted. That morning, we spoke in all seriousness of withdrawing. With the end of the year coming, being on the verge of the real excursion, we began to doubt and fear. More than the depths of the ocean, we feared being forsaken by a son who may not understand why we were risking our lives. And we feared that he still believed we were forsaking him.
We had been waiting for him to come down to open his present, but he rushed out of the house. After some token kisses, he reminded us that we’d given permission for him to go to his aunt’s for dinner. So after he left, we opened his gift over the kitchen table. There was a model of the Forsaken Four that could fit in my hand, and two figures—not to scale—of his father and me in our pelagonaut suits. The ship and figures were carved out of wood and painted. At the bottom of the box was a metal plaque engraved with the mission name, the ship’s name, and a motto that was to become the mission’s motto. “To see beyond fear into the heart of the world.”
We had our son’s blessing. After that, all fear and doubt were gone.
I’m trying to get my breathing under control. I don’t know how much oxygen we have left. It should be plenty, but I suddenly worry about that one thing of all the things that could go wrong. The ship had exchangers that could extract oxygen from the water. The probes we sent down into Pontus Deep indicated sufficient supplies of oxygen so long as the extractors and back-ups were working. I thought about how a few of the last probes we sent were meant to be recovered, but we couldn’t get them back from the unending black.
I didn’t react this way when we passed the Challenger Threshold, when we broke the world record for the humans who had reached the deepest depths of the ocean. Maybe it was because we weren’t that far down from where our fellow humans had reached. Maybe it was because I knew our son and everyone else could still talk to us and see us, and we could see them. Now we were beyond their sight, and so too were they beyond ours.
A strange anxiety fluttered just beneath the conscious calm that I was firmly gripping as we descended further and further past the point of lost contact with the surface world. The instruments read that we were also descending farther and farther, but our eyes couldn’t tell. Our bodies could no longer tell if we were descending. This was why we trained to sleep in the ship. It wasn’t because our bodies would need rest. It was because our minds, our psyches, would need it.
“I wonder if this is what it’s like in the womb,” my husband said.
I jumped a little, startled by the loud sound of his voice, even though he spoke in a near whisper. My hands had been resting lightly on my shoulder braces. One of them moved to my stomach and I wondered too, if my son had opened his eyes when he was inside me, if he too had seen unending black.
We had passed fifteen leagues down about a quarter of an hour ago. We’ve both been wide-eyed and wary since then, our gazes darting past windows constructed of a patented clear material that we called adaptive glass. I wondered how long we could stay tensed like that, on the verge of expectation. I couldn’t actually confirm that my husband was as wide-eyed as I was. But I could see the readings of his vitals as well as I could see mine. Our heart rates were elevated. Our brain wave patterns indicated high levels of alertness. I could hear his breathing, controlled but strained. I pictured him then as he looked in my favorite photo from all the shoots that we had done over the past month.
My favorite wasn’t the one that ended up on the magazine cover. The one where we were both smiling, me grinning goofily and giving a thumbs up, him with twinkling eyes frozen on the verge of a wink. My favorite photo was the one they took when he lost himself in the photographer’s scenario.
“Imagine you’re down there now,” she had said. “On the threshold of discovery, in the moment before you see what you’ve been waiting to see for over fifteen years now.”
His hands are on his shoulder braces. His breath is held. His brow is furrowed, but not from fear or worry. His expression could be determination. It could be cautious anticipation. I think it’s readiness. He’s ready. He’s on the brink.
I picture his expression like that now as I breathe deep breaths that I blow out through slightly parted lips. The black is abating. It’s hard to tell at first. I only know because the instruments show it to be so. The waters turn indigo. It’s warming too. The instruments are reading different salts, low levels of radiation. The waters turn a deep, deep blue. I can see particles streaming past the Forsaken.
I look down. There is a vast pit below us, swirling with luminescent particles. I see small shapes darting through the whorls of light. We are fifteen leagues below the surface of the sea and there is life.
A shape, a giant, emerges from the pit. A huge eye, so much like my own, ascends and draws level with the ship. The eye is brown and amber and it flickers inside, with thought or light. I realize I’m gaping. I realize something is beeping.
Communications is active again. The array has detected a signal, a familiar signal. It’s the deep-sea signal, from our host, I assume. Our system translates the message.
Welcome to Earth.
I exhale and my eyes well up with tears. They drip over my grinning cheeks. Beside me, I hear my husband laughing that silent kind of laugh through his nose first, the kind of laugh that is half-weeping. Through the corner of my tear-blurred vision, I see his hands reach out to the computer screen, so he could bring up a response. My hands remain occupied with the task of bringing in the ship. There is a definite pull downwards and we are receiving coordinates. There is a button on the touch screen labeled “Eye Care.” It appeared when we dropped past fifteen leagues. I press it and begin to laugh, for one of the engineers foresaw our need. Tiny robotic fingers emerged from my visor to wipe and suction my tears.
I see the pre-written messages that my husband is scrolling through. Everything from “we are at your mercy” to “we are honored to meet you,” from “are you friend or foe?” to “can we trust each other?”
He won the coin toss, so it was up to him. I nodded when I saw what he sent.
Thank you, my friend.
Whatever happens next, this was worth it.
Copyright © 2017. Story by Nila L. Patel. Artwork: “Pelagonaut” by Sanjay Patel.