Since the world’s going to end tomorrow, I thought I’d share a short 3600 word story I wrote for a Cthulhu 12/21 themed anthology that never came to be. (Ed note: I do not actually think the world will end tomorrow.)
What Lies Below – Cassie Alexander
God, she is gorgeous.
I have walked around the outside of her, the inside of her, touched her walls, and even, in my more foolish and solitary moments, knelt down to touch her floors.
The HMS Artful is mine.
She is mine.
There will be a grand ceremony at Her Majesty’s Naval Base tomorrow, attended even by the Prince. But I want what comes after that, when we slip into the waters of Gare Loch and from there make our way to the Celtic Sea — I can imagine all the waters of the world slowly rising in response to our entrance, as we create a miniature tide with our arrival into the ocean.
She possesses the power to change the world, and she is at my command.
The men aboard continue to be respectful. I had my doubts about this — not about my abilities as captain, ever, but I will admit to some trepidation about the reaction the men would have once we were out at sea. There were those who thought that the slightest hormonal imbalance, regardless of my qualifications and history, would send me running for the letter of last resort, eager to fire missiles in retaliation for the merest slight. Late night commentators said as much, and there were more than a few rude cartoonists who implied things in the paper.
But I am pleased to report that whatever dissention there might have been on my assignment, they have managed to keep it to themselves. I feel in large part this is due to the crewmembers I plucked from other assignments. My selection of Charleston to be my executive officer was a particularly good idea. He and I have served together for nearly a decade — I probably know him better than his wife does.
Of course, being the first female Captain of a Royal Navy submarine endears oneself to Navy wives as much as it does telly hosts and doodlers. If only they realized that I, like their husbands, am married to forces greater than mortal flesh. Queen and country, yes — but also radiation and steel.
The exercises began in earnest today. We are off the coast of Argentina, though I am the only one who knows our precise coordinates. Our collective breath is held.
The first round is ours. We came close enough to kiss them before making our escape. Three days off, and then it is our turn to be chased.
It has happened. I knew it would. Women have been notoriously bad luck on ships for years, and while I and others like me buck this trend, we cannot overcome all foolish superstitions all at once. I had hoped our recent success would wash away any sailor’s confrontational desires, and yet as I walked to the rear torpedo bays, an engineer refused to yield to me, and suggested I should be thrown overboard.
There are only ninety-six people on board this ship, and I handpicked all of them, except for three that washed out at the last moment, due to birthing-wives, or overarching loyalties to previous commanders. He was one of their replacements, and I was a fool for not checking him out myself. His breath was as foul as his attitude.
As the one thing our ship lacks is a brig, I’ve had him locked in the stateroom reserved for guests and riders, since so far we have none.
Sonar reported passive contact, 50 degrees relative to the port-bow, shortly after midnight.
My man at the station notified me immediately, and I when I arrived I found him still clutching the headphones to his head — the noise was both impossibly loud and impossibly long, cutting across all sonic frequencies. I took the headphones from him and heard it for myself, and I have since listened to the tape of it three times.
It hovered on the line between natural and mechanical. Any time I began to think that it might be a great vent opening up in the ocean below, and the sound that of extinguishing magma hissing into rock, these industrious clicking sounds began. And after a time listening to those, when you begin to think it is a cavitation perhaps, on a strangely injured but possibly known sub, or from an unknown sub entirely — surely Britain is not the only country that makes advances — it falls back towards the randomness of organic things.
I have ordered my sonar crew to stay quiet on this matter, until further explanation can be made. Speculation on the dockside is a fine game for an evening, but does no good within the confines of a ship.
We have been completely without contact for sixteen hours. Not even ocean floor relay stations, ours or anyone’s, report anything to us now. The only sound we hear is that of our own engines, like a cough in an empty theatre.
We spent two watches today performing thorough checks on all of our electronics and photonics, from stem to stern. There is now only a very remote possibility that this silence is endogenous.
But if it is not ours alone — then it covers the entire ocean. The Artful can hear a ship leaving harbor three thousand nautical miles away. Now? There is nothing. No sign of the submarines that we sparred with. No propellers, no sluicing trawlers, no whale song, no shrimp snaps, not even a crab’s belly rubbing up against rocks at the bottom of the sea.
I am meeting with my officers shortly. The silence of the sea is deafening.
Reasons considered at our meeting:
Massive EMP field / Sunspots
Meteor / Asteroid
I believe we are truly left with two options: an unwarned asteroid strike, or war. I am not sure which of these I would prefer.
The Prime Minister has sent no word. Certain officers suggested breaking silence — but if we are at war, then we are England’s last, best, hope.
Rather than surfacing or signaling, I have decided to take us to the nearest shipping route. What we find there will tell us how to proceed.
The troublesome engineer accosted me again. Demanded to know why our course has changed, why we have left the exercise zone. I was tempted to lock him back up on principle, but I was too disturbed by the fact that he knew how far our course had changed to act.
Putting him back in our make-shift brig would only confirm suspicions, if he’s told anyone else. I must bite my tongue, while I know that there is one among my officers who speaks too much.
Charleston joined me for a holiday meal in the wardroom. He brought a bottle of wine that he’d stowed aboard, an expensive Sharpham Beenleigh Red. I prefer French pinots but Charleston is nothing if not patriotic.
Which is why he does not ask me about the letter. I know he thinks on it — I know we both do.
You cannot be a submarine captain of an Astute-V Class submarine without being willing to fire its payload. Should England be incapacitated, the letter contains our last orders from home. Neither he nor I know what it says. I hope to never see it.
At 0300, I gave the order to hover.
We were in the middle of the Atlantic shipping lanes, but for all our sonargraphy we might as well been in outer space.
Only my personal periscope rose, allowing me to briefly remember what it was like to enjoy my commission. I danced with her, with my grey lady, bringing her to rise through the inky water to finally set eyes on what lay above.
At first, mere blackness. The stars were clouded and the distant waterline was indistinguishable from the bottom of the sky.
But then to starboard, wakes appeared. A pod of large grey figures broke the surface of the waves nearby. Larger than any orca, they were curved and elongated, like the dolphins on the submariner’s badge I wear. They had pointed snouts with easily visible teeth and thick tails that propelled them to easily match our speed. I couldn’t place their species, and wondered if it was some issue of refraction or distance, when the waxing moon broke through the oleaginous clouds to illuminate them properly.
They were truly off white, the color of old bone. And as they breeched the water I thought I could see strange venous patterns on their sides.
I knew in that moment that I had never seen such a creature before, and I never hoped to again. Clouds soon cloaked the moon, and the monsters dove under the waters, the sea hiding their sickly forms from my sight.
When I returned my attention to my crew, they were ecstatic — the sounds of ocean life were returning. Perhaps it was just an equipment malfunction after all, they hope.
I did not tell them what I saw outside, only that the night was black.
The organic noises of the ocean continue. To my ears, the sounds were not as they ought to be. The whales, if such they are, now sing different songs. I am not the only one who thinks they sound like they are screaming.
I know enough biology to know that mutations take time to manifest, and evolution takes at least centuries, doesn’t it? A nuclear war had far more chance of destroying all life than so readily creating new forms.
But what explains what I saw? Or the sounds we hear now? My crew believes a noisy sea is better than silence but I long to hear the sounds of humanity.
We are halfway back to England. I believe it is time to use active sonar, and my officers agree.
We’re slowing speed and deploying our towed array behind us.
It only took one ping.
Our towed array stretched out behind us at nearly the length of a football field, and we traveled slow and straight.
Our ping was answered by another sound, which gathered strength as it neared — like the dying of a hundred beasts at once, low and lonely, rising until I thought I might go mad from the pitch of it, and then the data from the array stopped.
Sonar reported a nearing mass of immense bulk, before the array disappeared. If I did not know precisely where we were, I would have assumed we only sounded the sea floor.
Before we could ping again — silence.
The cable attaching the towed array was pulled back inside. It was neatly snipped, like God’s own garden shears clipped its electronic bloom.
Equipment failure was publically blamed, and our engineers are despondent — Navy men take pride in the properness, the rightness, of their ship, and their abilities to keep it so.
As for me, I have ordered the baffles cleared ten times in the next two watches. If there is something this close to us, we will find it.
Charleston lunched with me. He’s spoken with Danby, my weapons officer. Both of them are ready to share their codes with me, notice from the Prime Minister or not. Normally I would be upset for him taking the initiative and speaking out of turn, but I understand the circumstances that made it so.
Nevertheless, I refused their offer. We have many weapons at the ready without resorting to nuclear attacks. I am loath to disrupt the chain of command, and I hesitate to prepare to fight an enemy I do not know, whose assaults, if such they are, I cannot predict, and whose effects I would not see.
Passive sonar heard only an increase in the lapping sound that seems to cover the seafloor these days, something that until now I had considered to be from an organic cause. This sound came closer, and the urge to turn on our lights and see what approached us was great, but I ordered my men still. Until –
Something brushed up against us.
Not even a blue whale — or a pod of them! — could harm us. But whatever it was was heavier than the Artful, and it drew alongside and brushed us. It rocked us. The Artful is twelve stories tall, and ninety-seven meters long. I ordered our light arrays to pulse three times as we rose at full speed. We did so, and either the movement or the light startled it away. Whatever it was.
The photonics caught nothing on the camera. Just a wall of blackness off our starboard bow that by the third flash had disappeared.
We will surface soon. I will survey the ship’s damage then — I must deal with the crew’s damage now.
The entire ship is in an uproar. What could have once been called superstitions, suspicions, or out-right lies, is now an unavoidable truth. There is not a man aboard who does not know that we were prodded by something unknown from outside, and who has not heard of our lack of transmissions of any sort from the outside world.
Divers requested permission to suit up, but I ordered them to stay. The Artful is my ship, and we have had no compromise in function. I will not send anyone into the waters that surround us unless I absolutely must.
Alone, above, I found daylight. I wanted to attribute my instant revulsion of it to my submariner’s instinct. Sunlight is an unfriendly thing to a submariner, until you have been on leave long enough to remember what it was like to have any. Yet when Charleston asked later, I had to say that the shade of it seemed off, as though it belonged to an unfamiliar sun, one more distant and cold than our own.
I looked down at the Artful’s top, from the height of her sail. It was hard to imagine the Royal Navy’s finest showing any wear or tear so early in her commission — but there were meter by meter patches where her acoustic tiles had been sheared off on her starboard side. The hull beneath appeared to be still intact, but it was difficult to see the metal clearly due to tarlike smears that rimed the places where the tiles were now gone.
I’ve ordered us to return to silent running. We will continue home. The moon should be full tonight. I am tempted to raise the Artful up to hover to see if it is the moon that I remember.
There has been a commotion in engineering. I heard it myself as I walked past their door. That foul engineer, bullying the others to return to the place where we first heard the sound, off the coast of Argentina. While there were those who disagreed with him, they were few in number, and quiet in their dissent. As I walked into the room to take charge, all present went silent, and I had only to look around to see the guilt on their faces.
I have sent Charleston to put him and certain others in our make-shift brig. Without discipline among its crew, even a ship like the Artful can be reduced to a mere bathing toy.
The lapping sound chases us now. It stops when we stop, and begins as we do. All the sonar men are attuned to it and I can see the haunted look in their eyes as they listen to its approach. I no longer attribute it to new undercurrents flowing across the bottom of the sea.
Charleston witnessed Danby eating lunch with the “conspirators”, as I am calling those who wished to turn back. There is not enough room in the stateroom-cum-brig for all of them and I am not willing to lose the majority of my engineers just yet. I know they will wait until we reach home to see what we find there, regardless of anyone’s exhortations, and that will determine, both for them and for me, our next active course.
We are in the middle of the Celtic Sea. At a hover, we see nothing. There are no cliffs or rolling hills in the distance. The waters that so recently birthed us do not welcome us home. Our home is gone.
Although I know my navigation officer has made no mistake, I have given all officers access to his charts. They hope to find a grievous error. I would be disgusted, only I cannot truly blame them for their hope.
The lapping sounds do not stop as we stop now.
My men do not look at me in the halls.
Charleston woke me. The other officers have been pressing him for his verification codes to open the safe and read the final letter. I think we two are the only ones who realize it does not matter what the letter says — what is there to fire upon when England herself is missing? He fears the worst of our crew, and I am forced to agree.
We know there will soon be a mutiny. Those who are in favor of returning outnumber those of us who wish to stay and wait. They have given up hope. I can hear it in their voices, and see it in their eyes. In time, I know they will want to use the nuclear weapons we have on board, if for nothing else than to prove that they are still men. They want to discover who — or what, I dare say — did this, and attack. In this, I fear they will cause their own end. I feel it in my gut that what has been disturbed cannot be so easily destroyed.
Perhaps given more time prior to this, I could have gained and kept their trust. I do not believe I am a poor captain, merely an enormously unlucky one. But I know that the ocean is not a fair mistress, nor are the men upon her always just. I went into this commission warily and so I cannot, and will not, complain.
I have, under duress, provided my portion of the code. All of my officers stood in the small room, tense, as we performed the last of the checks. The Prime Minister is dead. Radio 4 is silent. All that we know of England is gone.
We pieced our codes together in the appropriate order and the safe opened. Inside, the Letter of Last Resort lay, waiting for me. Our dearly departed Prime Minister’s cursive scrawl — the last missive we will ever get from him — says, “Use your best judgment. Good luck.” then has his elaborate signature underneath. I showed the letter to each officer, one at a time.
I know what my best judgment is, as do they. I want to scour the world’s harbors, if such remain, for survivors — while they, who have lost children, wives, and pride, want to sail to Argentina to find the source of this evil and attack. They believe that vengeance must come first, before peace.
I feel deep down in my soul that to go back to Argentina will only lead to our demise. Whatever has awoken there will not so easily be set to rest again, least of all by the nuclear weapons the Artful carries.
I looked from officer to officer, and even Charleston would not meet my gaze. If I back down now, I would be captain in name only, and not even that for long.
The ocean is cold.
Charleston helped me set my raft adrift two hours ago. None of the other officers would see me off. I suspect by the time the rest of the crew notices my disappearance they will be far, far, gone.
I watched the Artful glide away, as untroubled by her wake as she was by my absence. Less than an hour after she was gone, as dawn broke, the lapping sounds began. Unable to help myself, I peered over the edge of my raft and saw movement below, a shadow that seemed to stretch to the horizon, and then a large white field streaked with deep red, with a center of pale blue.
It was only when it blinked that I realized it was an eye.
I believe myself to be over where London once was, not because of any navigational skills, adrift upon the sea, but because of what I see beneath me. Fragments of large buildings stretch up from the seafloor, covered with a layer of phosphorescent slime. Large creatures dart between these as though they own them now. I thought I saw them crossing what was left of Tower Bridge, submerged.
The waters here are swift. If I wait, I will soon die of exposure on the open sea. If I take my leave now, well — if I could not go down with the Artful, at least I will have gone down with England.
Strange currents pull me now. I am curious to see what lies below.