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Denizens: 20 - Contact

The first submersible and its crew are missing. Tom and Jennifer descend in the second submersible, deeper, and deeper yet, seven mile down to the floor of the Pacific ocean - and there they find...astonishment!

For earlier chapters of Brian William Neal's superb novel click on Denizens in the menu on this page.

The Western Pacific
July, 2034

“All right, all right, hold it down!” Tom’s voice cut through the uproar in the control room. Van Damme and the technicians were all talking at once, and the Belgian was gesticulating wildly, his face bright red with anxiety and exertion. He stopped in mid-sentence and turned towards Tom with a surprised look.

Strictly speaking, the Belgian was third in the project’s chain of command after Arnold and Julia Sears, and with Arnold’s number two back in Los Angeles, seeing to the running of the institute, van Damme should have been the one issuing orders and determining their course of action. However, it was obvious to Tom and Jennifer that he was not going to be much use in a crisis. His expertise appeared to extend only to the scientific arena, and leadership was not one of his many fine qualities. To make matters worse, he had suffered from a bout of diarrhea since they had arrived, and was still not well.

The situation called for another, cooler head, and it was Jennifer who decided that issue, in her usual calm fashion. She turned to the young biologist beside her.

“What are we going to do, Tom?”

Tom ran his fingers through his thick blonde hair and huffed. “Christ. I guess there’s only one thing we can do. We have to mount a search for them, immediately. We’d better get number two ready.”
van Damme protested. “No, no, we can’t risk the other submersible! Remember what Arnold said, only one sub in the water at a time!”

“We’ve got to, dammit!” said Tom. Then, in a quieter voice, “We’ve got to. Whatever’s happened, we’re their only hope.

*

Tom and Jennifer stared, spellbound, as the super arcs of submersible number two illuminated the edge of the trench, presenting them with the same awesome spectacle that had greeted the occupants of number one.

“My God,” breathed Jennifer. “It’s one thing to see it on a monitor, but this…this is incredible.”

Tom, sitting in the right-hand seat next to her, silently agreed. Only the two of them were making the dive; van Damme, who should have been occupying the center seat, was abed back on board the Halsey, laid low with a combination of stress and his upset bowels. He had promised to take over topside communications when he felt better, but for now they were on their own.

From the left-hand pilot’s seat, Jennifer said, “I’ve programmed the computer to follow the course taken by number one. All being well, it should take us all the way to the bottom.” She eased the throttle forward, and the craft throbbed as the fusion engines transferred energy to the water jets. While Tom switched the arcs to low power, Jennifer turned control of the sub over to the computer, and they began the long series of descending spirals that would take them to the floor of the trench.

As with number one, the descent was uneventful. The view ahead showed nothing but the occasional inhabitant of these deep places, totally expected; of the fabulous creatures mentioned in the reports, there was no sign.

At last the gently sloping floor of the trench showed up in their lights, smooth and silty. The depth gauge read thirty-five thousand two hundred feet; Jennifer canceled the autopilot program and took back control of the sub. They had missed the Trieste’s landing site by perhaps five hundred feet, and she now turned the craft to face down the slope.

Hovering about five meters off the bottom, she advanced the throttles minutely and proceeded slowly down to the flat area that was the first lower plateau. This was the spot where the Trieste had touched bottom, over sixty-eight years ago. In the light from the sub’s spots, Tom could see how those two brave men had been fooled into thinking they had reached the actual floor of the trench.

The flat area they were now passing over stretched away from them into the darkness. With the primitive equipment the old bathyscaph had possessed, there was no way Piccard and Walsh could have known there was another trench further along. Tom reached forward and touched the controls that turned on the super arcs. As their brilliant blue-white light flooded the undersea plain, there was a surge of wave pressure that rocked the sub as though it were a toy. Tom and Jennifer, although held in their seats by their harnesses, were nevertheless thrown about as the wave passed over them.

“Jesus!” exclaimed Tom. “What the hell was that?” He turned in his seat towards Jennifer, and saw the look on her face; a mixture of disbelief, awe and sheer terror. He faced forward again and felt his insides loosen at the sight that confronted them.

Directly ahead, clearly visible in the transplendent radiation of the arcs, was an impossible creature. It resembled a whale, in that it had a large, bulbous head and a fluked tail, but there the similarity ended.

This creature was unlike any that had ever existed on earth. The sub’s range finder indicated that it was fifteen hundred meters from them, swimming lazily in waters where it could not possible exist. The equipment also indicated that the beast was more than one hundred and fifty meters in length. As the two humans watched, first another large “whale”, then a smaller one joined the first, and they nuzzled each other, quite untroubled by the sub’s presence. Other creatures began to appear, huge and wondrous; the giant rays, the massive dragon-like beasts. A huge squid glided past, ignoring the sub and its two awestruck occupants.

Tom and Jennifer gaped as the creatures continued to gather. More and more came, beasts of all sizes and descriptions, until the undersea plain was covered with them, the sub bobbing like a plaything in their midst. Still they continued to come; ahead, a family of dolphin-like creatures cavorted in the lights, their young fully ten meters in length. Tom turned the arcs to a lower setting, and began to notice that the creatures were emitting a light of their own, and he switched the lights off completely. In the sudden dark, the glow from the beasts grew in intensity, and they continued to treat the sub as one of their own. In the face of their gentleness, Tom’s and Jennifer’s fear abated. The massive leviathans’ playfulness was as infectious as it was obvious, and the two began to smile as they watched. Then Tom noticed they were moving closer to the creatures’ playground.

“Better not get too close, Jennifer,” he said. “Those guys might seem friendly enough, but they could demolish this sub with one flick of their tails.”

Jennifer looked at her instruments and frowned. “As far as I’m concerned, we should be stationary in the water. We shouldn’t be moving at all.”

They looked out through the wrap-around screen at the cavorting beasts, and saw that they were definitely getting closer. Jennifer engaged reverse drive and gently applied power, but there was no discernible effect. The sub continued on its forward path. Tom keyed the radio, but there was nothing but static from the speakers.

“Give it everything it’s got!” he said, and Jennifer opened the throttle wide. The craft began to shudder, and continued its forward course.

“It’s no good,” she said. “I’m going to have to shut down, or we’ll be shaken to pieces. If we burn out the engines, we’ll be in real trouble.”

Jennifer pulled back the throttle and put the ship in neutral. The whine of the engines died away, and they continued to move forward. The creatures had ceased their play, and were swimming lazily around them, moving aside when they approached and opening a channel, down which the sub passed on its way to the bottom of the trench.

They reached the lower “trench within a trench”, and saw that it was a miniature replica of the main trench, about a mile wide and two thousand feet deep. The two sat helplessly in their craft as they were pulled by the mysterious force into the gully and began to descend into its depths, surrounded by the ranks of silent beasts, increasing in number all the time. They reached the floor of the lower trench and traveled along its length, and Tom glanced at the depth meter. “Well, there it is, sports fans. For whatever it’s worth, we’ve just set another record. Thirty-seven thousand seven hundred feet, over seven miles down.” He glanced at the walls of the trench sliding by on either side as it narrowed, and smiled nervously at Jennifer. “Christ, I feel like Luke Skywalker.”

Jennifer smiled back. “O.K. kid, let’s blow this thing and go home.”

The sub was performing perfectly; the alien metal was living up to all expectations, and they felt no discomfort from the cold they knew existed at these depths. As an insulator, Tom thought, it had no equal, and the unimaginable outside pressure might as well not even be there.

They moved along the bottom of the trench, past increasing numbers of the gigantic beasts that bathed the sub in their silvery light. Tom and Jennifer watched in awe, all fear gone, as the massive bodies passed within meters of their craft.

They passed a seemingly endless variety of creatures; whales, dolphins, rays, dragons, squid, as well as some they did not recognize at all, filling the trench on all sides as far as they could see. After about ten minutes, they began to notice another glow emanating from ahead, different in shade to that produced by the creatures. While theirs was a silver-gray, this new light had a softer hue, the color of roses.

As they neared the end of the main clutch of swimming creatures, the glow grew in intensity, until the reddish tint filled the ship and turned the surrounding area into a garden of soft ruby light. Then they crested a slight rise in the trench floor, and saw what was causing the gentle damask radiance.
Nestled in the hollow below the rise was another craft. It was not the other sub; in their wonder at the creatures, Tom and Jennifer had almost forgotten about the plight of number one, and now they saw that it was there, but attached somehow to the side of the other craft. They could see no sign of life aboard either vessel; the strange craft was huge, its design clearly otherworldly, and it pulsed with a crimson light as they approached.

The two lovers stared at the strange sight in fascination and wonder. “Tom,” said Jennifer, “you do see that, don’t you?”

Tom nodded. “Oh, yeah.”

He tried the radio again, but it was lifeless, devoid even of static. The sub was drawn closer to the alien craft, for that is what they both knew it must be, and the two vessels touched gently, their sub coming to rest alongside number one. Then Jennifer pointed towards the point on the inside of their hull where it touched the strange vessel.

“Look, Tom! Look at the hull!”

“I see it, babe. But I don’t believe it.”

Where the two craft touched, the bulkhead seemed to be dissolving, creating a doorway two meters square. But instead of letting in the water and killing them both with the enormous pressure that existed outside the sub, what they saw appeared to be the interior of the other ship.

“What’s happening?” asked Jennifer.

Tom shook his head. “I don’t know. The walls have fused together and just…disappeared.” He climbed out of his seat and walked over to the new doorway. “The join seems perfect,” he said. “Just as if it were made this way.” He peered cautiously through into the other ship. “I can’t see anyone or much of anything at all in there,” he said, turning back to Jennifer, “but I think it’s obvious we’re meant to go through. I guess we’d better.”

Jennifer looked doubtful, and Tom said, “I know, I’m just as leery as you are about it, but I don’t think we’re going to get out of here until we do.”

Jennifer agreed, and Tom took her hand. Then together they stepped through the doorway and into the alien ship.

As they entered the crimson-hued interior of the alien vessel, Tom half expected the opening to close behind them, but when he looked back it was still there, shimmering slightly but steady. Still holding Jennifer’s hand, he led the way down an impossibly long corridor whose walls pulsed with the red glow that permeated the entire ship. They passed several rooms that led off the main aisle, but since they did not appear to go anywhere, they ignored them and kept on.

Although the craft was obviously not of earthly origin, Tom was nevertheless struck by how much it seemed tailored to human occupancy. Of the rooms they passed, many were clearly sleeping quarters, with ordinary beds and furniture, tables and chairs of sophisticated but recognizable design. They also saw rooms containing baths and showers, and some rooms had wardrobes full of strange looking but clearly human clothes.

The size of the interior of the ship, compared to the outside, also mystified them, but their sense of wonder was dangerously close to overload, and they simply accepted it and continued on their way.
Finally, they came to what seemed to be a dead end; the corridor simply stopped at a seamless wall, without any features that they could see. Tom moved close to it, and jumped when it slid aside, revealing a room full of complex machinery. Tom and Jennifer smiled nervously in excited apprehension at each other, then moved forward into the room. The first thing they noticed was that some of the instruments seemed oddly familiar.

Jennifer walked over to a row of terminals and ran her hands over one of the keyboards. To her astonishment, she saw that the letters on the keyboard were in English. She touched a switch, and one of the machines hummed into life. She looked over her shoulder at Tom.

“Look, Tom, “ she called. “Look at this, it’s amazing! This is an ordinary computer, just like the ones I’ve used all my life, at school, work, home, everywhere!”

She examined the board for a few moments, then pressed a key at random. At first, there was no reaction. Then, just as Tom was about to suggest they try another key, a large section of the wall above the terminal turned into a screen, fully six feet across, displaying a pattern they did not recognize. Tom looked around the room; there were several soft cushions scattered on the floor, and he was considering gathering them together to make a seat when a door opposite them slid open. The next moment, Arnold, Dennis and John stepped into the room.

Jennifer gave a cry, and ran to embrace her brother, and Tom hugged Arnold and Dennis. Before they could exchange any of the many questions they had for each other, a voice sounded from the direction of the wall screen.

“Hi, there. Glad you could make it.”


*

The group whirled as one and stared in astonishment at the screen. On it, a face, very much a human one, smiled and said, “Why don’t you pull up some of those cushions and make yourselves comfortable. This is going to take some time.”

Totally bewildered, they did as they were bid; the crimson radiance filling the ship changed to a softer white light, and when they were seated, the face on the screen continued.

“If you can understand this, fine. If not, the disc is removable, as is most of the equipment on the ship, and you can take it with you when you leave.” The man, for that was what he surely was, grinned. “Most of the stuff on this ship is priceless. We were sure you’d want to remove it all, so we made it easy for you.”

The five submariners settled on to the cushions, and the man spoke again. He was good-looking in a dark and dangerous way, and spoke English with an American accent.

“What you are about to hear will probably sound too far-fetched for you to believe, I suspect, but I assure you it’s all true. This ship is proof of that, I guess.” He smiled again. “I suppose, for the want of a better opening, I should start at the beginning.”

“My name is Calvin T. Ferguson, Colonel, United States Air Force. In February, 2028, I became a part of a secret government mission known as the Hermes Project….”

***

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