This is an idea I’ve been playing around with for a while, so when ‘bottom of the ocean floor’ was included in Chuck Wendig’s latest flash challenge, it seemed an obvious fit (fortunately, he didn’t specify which ocean). That said getting this thing to fit in 1000 words was a hell of a job, and I still think it could use more detail to establish atmosphere and such. But here it is, anyway.
Tranquility Station was a grandiose undertaking; the first permanent human presence in the outer Solar System. The Jovian moon Europa had become a priority of the space programme after the early probes had confirmed the presence of life. It had taken decades, trillions of dollars and unprecedented scientific and technological achievement to construct, but now at last, it stood complete on the bottom of the sub-surface ocean, housing dozens of scientists dedicated to studying this new world.
Clustered around volcanic vents on the ocean floor, Europa’s life was alien, but recognisable. Living in almost total darkness, they were mostly chemoautotrophs, deriving heat and nourishment from the mineral-rich streams of warm water emitted by the vents.
The fascinating exceptions were the ‘jellyfish’, as everyone called them: complex luminescent organisms, each composed of thousands of long, thin feelers and manipulators, gathering in large blooms to feed off the autotrophs – a grazing apex predator, as it were. Soon after the studies began, one scientist caused a brief flurry with the hypothesis that the jellyfish might even be sentient, that their blinking lights and graceful motions represented a form of communication.
However, such ideas were soon replaced by more immediate concerns when the facility equipment started breaking down.
At first, everyone attributed the equipment malfunctions to simple accidents and wear. As expected, maintenance had proven to be one of the greatest challenges for the facility. The environment at the bottom of the Europan ocean – extreme pressure, cold and darkness, high salinity content – wore out machinery and electronics at an astounding pace. It was only when equipment in the protected environment inside the base started to break down that suspicions were aroused.
“Sabotage.” I do not remember who used the word first. But in any case, it seemed incomprehensible. Given the hostility of the environment, any act of sabotage threatened the very existence of the facility, and the lives of everyone living here. Who would be so insane as to put their own life at risk, and for what purpose? Tranquility was an international project, a peaceful scientific research facility that would benefit all of humanity. No country, no political party, not even any terrorist organisations would gain much from its destruction.
After some time, though, the malfunctions abated for a while and we all relaxed somewhat. Perhaps they had just been a series of freak accidents. Maybe it had just been coincidence that they happened all at once.
But then people started dying.
As the base doctor, I was responsible for examining all of the victims. Like the earlier equipment malfunctions, the first couple of deaths seemed accidental. The first victim took too many sleeping pills one evening. The next suffered a suit malfunction, then came a sudden heart attack, electrocution from a faulty power cable, and so forth. But when a microbiologist was found in his room with his throat cut, there could be no further doubts. We had a murderer among us.
At that point, the base commander decided to send the submarine to the surface and request assistance. It had barely gotten a hundred meters away from Tranquility when it exploded. With the next supply ship not scheduled to arrive for several months, we were now truly cut off from the rest of humanity. As expected when people are locked into an enclosed area and afraid for their lives, our tiny society collapsed rapidly after that. Suspicions and tempers ran high, carrying a gun at all times became a matter of course, and people began to stay together in groups; the only thing worse than being alone was being together with just one person. Not that any precautions did any good – people just kept dying.
Doubt was always my ally. People are naturally inclined to trust doctors, so it was easy enough to increase a sleeping pill dose here, switch two medications to cause a heart attack there, and so forth. Even the base commander trusted me almost to the last, and in doing so, he doomed both himself and everyone else in the facility. By the time I had killed the rest of the crew, and there were no one left but him and me, he realised his error, of course. And then I shot him as well; the last inhabitant of Tranquility Station except myself.
He is lying on the floor right next to my desk as I write this, a small stream of bright red blood running across the floor from the wound. It is a surprisingly vivid colour. I try to commit it to memory as clearly as I can, for I will soon embrace the darkness, where there will be no more colours.
Tranquility Base had always been misnamed. Certainly, the bottom of the Europan ocean seemed tranquil to us when we first arrived. Quiet, dark, cut off from the rest of the universe by kilometres of water and ice. But in reality, we were a disturbance, an intrusion, an unwanted foreign element in this world.
I do not regret what I have done. I have, in a sense, betrayed not just all my colleagues, but all of humanity. But it was necessary. The jellyfish required these deeds of me. I heard their song soon after I arrived, an eerie, subdued, alien presence in my mind. Far from being frightening, it was comforting and reassuring; but they required a service of me. I do not know why they chose me as their instrument, but I understood what they wanted me to do; what was necessary to do. Tranquility Station had to fall silent.
I have shut down all equipment in the facility, but still I hear their song in my head. I shall join them in a moment. This is the reward they have promised me: Without the artificiality of a suit, I will at last be able to experience their world as they do. To repose forever in the quiet and the dark of the ocean depths.
It will be magnificent.