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Life on the one-man submersible research vessel Jones Junior is a life of compact darkness. Picture a minivan-sized can, overstuffed with laboratory equipment then plunged into the ocean. The width of my living space is not quite the span of my arms. I have a bunk that flips down from the wall and when it is stowed I have access to compartments holding my research specimens. A rugged laptop keeps the data I record from my experiments, and also plays movies. Down here time does not pass. It falls. It sinks like tar, viscous and rank, its black bulges compressed into columns, and those columns of black time sink downwards, down into even darker places. My days are measured in prepared meals and red LEDs blinking on instruments. I begin with 180 meals. They are packaged in special salt-water soluble trays that break down when I add a reagent and put them in the airlock. The airlock is the size of a microwave oven and through it I deploy experiments, gather samples, and eject refuse. It is my only access to the world beyond the cramped interior of the submersible besides a single, fist-sized porthole window, over which I
tape a picture of Sasha. The photo covers the window completely. Then I read an email from my boss, Doctor Handler: “Don’t resurface until you’ve got results.” Time proceeds to slug along. Sasha and I have scheduled conversations. I use a handset that broadcasts in sonar to a buoy far above me. The buoy translates the sonar into digital data and relays it to a satellite, which sends it to a receiver on the North American continent, which translates it back to words. “Happy birthday,” I tell Sasha. Then I wait. Fourteen seconds later I hear, “Say again?” Writing is better. We type our love to each other. When I am not conducting my prescribed experiments or recording data I am secretly working on a way to send things to the surface, to Sasha. It’s a difficult proposal, because at a depth of four thousand meters the pressure is so intense that almost anything will implode or disintegrate outside the submersible. This is where I use my most advanced skills as a marine biologist. I type to Sasha, “I am sending you a bioluminescent prokaryote. I invented it myself. I grew it for you. This species has never existed on earth until this moment.” She responds, “I had to change our ATM pin today. Remind me to tell you the new one when you get back.” I finish my assigned tasks for Doctor Handler and resume work on
my own project. With a dropper I squeeze six droplets of nutritive saline solution onto a deployment panel. I put it in the lock and seal the interior door, then activate the exterior door and seawater fills the chamber and outside of Jones Junior the water pressure sends my bioluminescent prokaryotes upwards to the surface, up to cool open air, up to Sasha. The single-celled organisms are almost too small to see, but careful observation reveals them shimmering like specks of emerald. “I had to throw away your hiking boots,” Sasha types. “They were growing a strange mold inside.” “Did you see the prokaryotes? Did you watch the buoy’s webcam?” “I watched. I must have missed them.” The reason I am down here is to run experiments for a memory drug. A deep-sea bacterium was discovered containing the exact amino chain that alzheimer patients lack. I am studying synthesized versions of it. It was cheaper for the drug company to buy this old submersible than to build a new pressurized facility on land. Every day I send reports. Every week I get a response. I watch the same movie again. I have over three hundred movies loaded on my research laptop but I keep watching this one in black and white about a deluded horror film director. I want Sasha to rent it, to watch it too, but the file is corrupted and I don’t know the title, so I don’t tell her about it.
I work on my own deployments for Sasha. I want to send something significant to the surface, something she cannot miss. I culture scraps from my meals, selectively breeding a strain that will survive both the pressures down here and the lack of pressure up there. “Pick up the handset. I want to talk,” types Sasha. “I’m here,” I say into the handset. Fourteen seconds later she says, “I love you. You’ve been gone so long.” I don’t say anything yet. It is hard to know when she is done talking because of the delay. “Over,” she says. “I love you too. Oh Sasha, I love you so much.” Too quickly I hear her voice again. She says, “It’s over. I’m sorry, it’s over.” “Sasha?” “Sasha?” I say again. “Over?” I say. I stand up, forgetting the ceiling, and my skull cracks against the bulkhead. I sit down, wincing from the pain. Over is just a word. So is heartbreak. I seek shelter in my assigned tasks, trying to forget. It is a day, or a week. It is a shelf of packaged meals and a mass of
research reports. It is me, curled in a trembling ball on my pull-down bunk, listening to the oxygen recycler. Finally I force myself to work on my personal project again. I breed my cultures of bioluminescent prokaryotes. I will send her something beautiful. She will see. I discover that by feeding my prokaryotes the electrolyte fluid I drink every day, I can speed their growth. I inject enzymes. There is a lot of trial, a lot of error. There are small steps forward. I send the best of my results to the surface and watch my laptop for the jagged videos from the buoy’s webcam. At night the water glitters with my creations. There is a message from Doctor Handler. He schedules an online meeting. He types, “what is this we are seeing at night on the monitors?” I type, “some sort of bioluminescence.” “Is it from the submersible?” “Not that I’m aware of,” I type. “Haven’t you seen my reports? Everything is progressing normally.” By mixing the electrolyte fluid with the composting reagent and the starch from my packaged meals I create a self-replicating strain of my bioluminescent prokaryotes. I deploy a single drop of the solution and by the time it reaches the surface, soft green light spreads across a square kilometer. I watch the webcam and gasp, enraptured.
I copy old data reports into the new ones for Doctor Handler so I can free up more time to cultivate my own specimens. I work furiously and passionately. Sometimes I sleep. Always the LEDs glow red and always I want to taste fresh air and see her face, and I cannot. Doctor Handler writes, “Something is awry. Mission abort probable. Stand by.” I type, “I am almost done. The synthesis is almost verified.” One drop at a time I send them up and they unfold and blossom on their journey. At the surface a glowing continent is visible from space. There are burgeoning, glowing curlicues of interlinked and luminous organisms. There are tendrils of new life reaching out in all directions, fiercely and defiantly fluorescent, pressed between the briny sea surface and the broad night air settled upon it. At the surface there are ships and there are headlines in the news. Tucked within my submersible I read the message boards. People are talking about a living landmass. People are talking about Atlantis, the devil, Bermuda, nuclear waste. I am sending my replications upwards and no longer recording data. I am my own experiment. Sasha will see it soon. Sasha has not called back. But she will call soon.
Ian Tuttle is a writer and photographer working in San Francisco. His website is http://ituttle.com. If you enjoyed this story, please consider purchasing it for your kindle (it’s only 99 cents) and supporting the author’s efforts by clicking here.
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