The Sunlight Zone
The expedition to find the sea monks was funded by a benefactress whose husband and two adult sons had been lost at sea. She said “lost” but people tended to say “dead” when she wasn’t in the room.
She herself knew better: her husband and sons had been taken in by the sea monks. She gave staggering amounts of money to clean-ocean initiatives. The planet was changing, and the woman was plagued by nightmares of her loved ones watching in impotent horror as die-offs percussed the oceans and reefs bleached and jellyfish bloomed. Part of her felt that if they had chosen not to return, she shouldn’t disturb them—she pictured her loved ones’ human hands clasping the sea monks’ fins as they joined together in a Paternoster, man and fish side by side, tending seabed gardens, illuminating waterproof manuscripts, brewing wonderful underwater ales—but she wanted to know. Having heard about a new technology that allowed craft to stay underwater for theoretically any amount of time, she consulted the local monsignor, who, as the woman spoke, strenuously kept his focus on how generous the woman had been in the past and off the cartoon reel in his mind of miniature friars bobbing around like bath toys, riding little sea horses through kelp forests. With the monsignor’s blessing, she decided to fund the sea monk expedition.
Ruby was on the expedition because she was the receptionist at St. Egbert’s in the parish adjacent to the benefactress’s country house. Those organizing the expedition hadn’t been able to find anyone from the benefactress’s own parish willing to go. They hadn’t found anyone in Ruby’s parish of employment either, but then somebody had said, “Why don’t we ask Ruby?” Ruby had never been on anything even approximating an expedition, and she was acutely aware that her presence was a clear indication of the organizers’ minimal expectations. Ruby had just ended a relationship and thought maybe going on the trip would help the transition. Help as in, Hey, Lloyd, what have you been up to since we broke up? Oh? That’s cool. I’m going in a submarine. I’m going to touch the edge of the unknown.
Sea monks had failed to assert themselves into the popular imagination the way mermaids had. They lacked a certain appeal. The few pictorial depictions stuck a tonsured human head on a fish body, scaly fins and tail forming the monk’s robe. These were all in dated natural history volumes that took Herodotus at face value and featured unicorns, cynocephali, and Blemmyes. Following the Reformation, sightings had petered off from rare to virtually nonexistent. Ruby doubted she’d ever known anyone who had even heard of sea monks, not even the boy she had gone out with in high school who had shamelessly noted on his college applications that his intended career path was in cryptozoology.
The high school boyfriend was now a realtor. Ruby had looked him up online when she and Lloyd were breaking up. She’d looked up a few other exes, too, men who had secured gainful employment only after they’d broken up with her, as if she were a job-securing talisman they’d needed to rub a few times.
When Trevor had explained that their benefactress believed the sea monks had taken her sons and husband in, Ruby had replied, “That’s so sad,” meaning pathetic, but in a sad way. If Lloyd had been swept out to sea, she too could be sad, sad but grateful for the time they’d spent together. This seemed preferable to resenting how she’d wasted her time as well as her security deposit, to which Lloyd had been unable to contribute.
“Oh, I don’t know,” Trevor had said. “Hope is a beautiful thing.” Trevor trafficked in such ingenuous statements. “To her credit, there are documented encounters with sea monks. There’s one story about a king who finds a sea monk—I think this one’s referred to as a sea bishop. The king put him in a tank but the sea bishop started to look a little sick. A little green around the gills.”
He paused to let Ruby absorb this.
“As it were,” he said.
“Ha,” Ruby said belatedly.
“So some human bishops prevailed upon the king, convinced him to release the sea bishop. They brought him back to the water, he thanked them, made the sign of the cross, and then swam away.”
“Is that the whole story?”
“What, you need more? More than a half fish, half human who isn’t a mermaid but who for some reason is a bishop?”
Trevor then told another story about how someone in the seventeenth century had caught a sea monk and refused to release it despite its pleading. It turned down food, pining for the sea, and died after about a week. Trevor, who still seemed miffed by Ruby’s reaction to the sea bishop story, had ended this anecdote with “You like that one better?”
The submarine was an Ohio-class sub with miles of corridors that curled intestinally within. During the orientation, which had been held on the boat that had brought them to the submarine, the first mate had explained the mechanism that was letting them stay underwater for so long, called gills, or possibly GILLS. The captain was not present at the orientation, and the first mate apologized for his absence: the captain was already aboard the submarine, he said, attending to the final preparations.
An Arizona police department had acquired the submarine under the 1033 Program and then auctioned it off at their annual Back the Blue Gala. The winning bidder was an entrepreneur who intended to be the trailblazer of the luxury underwater cruise experience industry; he had traveled all the way from the Bay Area just to put in his bid. When investors failed to materialize, the benefactress had stepped in.
The entrepreneur had completed an overall update, including the installation of the GILLS. The construction had been cleverly contrived so that you could spend days without seeing the machinery or the crew. There was a grand chandeliered dining room, and at the bow there was a viewing area with huge windows, couches, and booths, originally conceived of as a lounge where you could get top-shelf pickled while watching the ocean pass by in the crepuscular intensity of the submarine’s spotlights. The viewing window, which was thirty feet high and stretched around the front of the submarine, was said to be made of a five-foot-thick sheet of plexiglass. The spotlights made what could be seen murky and velvety.
The last-minute additions to accommodate the current expedition included a large state-of-the-art lab, sponsored by a clutch of drug companies whose names were on a plaque by the door; a workout room; and a rec room with a TV and VCR, a VHS library dominated by Kevin Costner, and an air hockey table that nobody could use because it sucked air in instead of blowing it out.
The lab was bright and white like a Mac store, and the lights were always on, unlike the hallway lights, which were on a timer that mimicked a day-night cycle. Saliha, who studied the brain and human-animal relationships, had warned Ruby that if deprived of these rhythms people tended to exhibit very strange behaviors.
Saliha was one of the three scientists on board, the other two being Maria and Natasha. Add Trevor, who had introduced himself as the team coordinator, and Ruby, and you had five, a small team considering the ambitious size of the lab: most of the solicited institutions hadn’t been able to get past “sea monks.” Collectively Saliha, Maria, and Natasha held four doctorates, which meant somebody had more than one. They had never worked together or even been at the same institutions, yet seemed to know all the same people: Maria knew Natasha’s advisor’s advisor, Natasha as an undergrad had lived on the same floor as Saliha’s advisor’s daughter, and Saliha was friends with the editor of a journal Maria and Natasha had each contributed to in the past. When they realized they had all signed the same open letter in the New York Times, a comradery beyond professional obligations was sealed. Natasha had just finished a postdoc and specialized in marine snow; Saliha worked for some big think tank that was often cited on NPR when statistics concerning large groups of people were called for; and Maria was at a well-known East Coast university and spent her summers in Venezuela doing something Ruby hadn’t quite caught. They had consented to swallow “sea monks” because the submarine would grant them unprecedented access to the parts of the ocean they specialized in.
Trevor often referred to places the others didn’t know about. When someone inevitably confessed unfamiliarity (and even when she didn’t), he’d say, “Yeah, not many people have heard of it. It’s off the beaten path.” Sometimes he’d say “track” instead of “path.” He seemed to do the same thing in each of these exotic places: get drunk on cheap local beer with other westerners. Supposedly Trevor had been hired to run everything, having worked for several global backpacking outfits. Later, after they started fucking, and spurred by the recollection of her own hiring process (“Why don’t we ask Ruby?”), Ruby came to question the decision-making that had resulted in Trevor’s employment.
The other three women were researchers whose long-term projects were meant to be carried out over the course of the entire voyage. Ruby herself was single-use: she had one task. She was to deliver a papal bull, the document from the Vatican that would start the process of officially recognizing the monks’ underwater order in its current iteration; since the last recorded sighting had been in 1855, there was concern that the sea monks had missed the news about Vatican I and II, big things like papal infallibility and not having to say Mass in Latin anymore. The bull was rolled up in a fancy poster tube. The cardboard was thick and of an elegant matte black. The tube was stored in a larger FedEx tube that still bore the dents, smudges, and stickers that had ushered it from Rome. Ruby had never seen the bull, and she didn’t know if any part of it was waterproof, but she could hear the metal papal seal, the bulla, thunking around inside the tube.
It was not until Ruby was unpacking that she processed that the priest who’d blessed the expedition had not boarded the submarine with them. Because she hadn’t been convinced they were actually going to find a sea monk, she hadn’t thought about the details of her task; now that she was on the submarine, she was no longer so sure she wasn’t going to be called upon to fulfil her duty. Were the sea monks coming into the submarine? Was she to go out in a diving suit—and was she meant to have taken a class and gotten certified for deep-sea diving?
Some thought sea monks were walrus sightings; what if she saw a walrus and didn’t realize it was a sea monk? If they had fins, would it be rude to extend her hand for a handshake? Did they understand English or, worst-case scenario, high school Spanish? There suddenly seemed to be many particulars that needed to be addressed, but when she asked Trevor what the expectations were, he replied genially, “Yeah, however you want it to go down works for me.”
They each had their own cabin. Each cabin had two double-decker bunks with a small chair between them pushed against the wall opposite the door. The cabins had been hastily refurbished for the expedition, and too many cabins had been prepared with far too many beds.
Ruby was sure she’d read that a large percentage of the casualties on foreign ferry tragedies, and maybe even the Titanic, could be attributed to passenger disinterest in posted emergency procedure. She made a point of studying the maps on the back of her door. They were marked with labeled routes and “You Are Here” stars, and vigorously color-coded (though there was no key). Ruby’s room was assigned to Evacuation Group Purple.
The first full day of the voyage was spent traveling near the surface to reach the coordinates where they would begin the dive. Over the course of that first day, Ruby watched from the viewing window and through her own porthole as they passed teeming tableaus of wild flashing colors.
At first, she felt optimistic that the water sloshing up to submerge her was easily reversible; she was still able to picture the submarine resurfacing, the five of them blinded by the sun leaping and glittering on the water like handfuls of tossed coins. This optimism held until the first morning of the dive, when she woke up to see all that utter nothing still there, framed in the little circle of the porthole.
She had known academically they would be deeper under the water, and thus farther from the sun, but she suddenly understood what that meant. They had descended into an endless night, and she realized that her worry wasn’t so much that the night was eternal but that there was no day to approach. The window seemed to bubble in toward her. She had slapped the cover shut. Now she avoided looking at the porthole at all, even covered.
The Twilight Zone
On the second day of the dive, the submarine began to descend alongside an immense cliff that they would continue to follow into the earth for the rest of the journey. The cliffside was riddled with holes and caves and tunnels that the lights from the submarine picked out but couldn’t reach into.
When the drill came that day, Ruby set out for the emergency meeting point, repeating the directions from the map in her room: turn right at the bathroom, turn right at the bathroom. She turned right at the bathroom, and after several minutes of speed-walking found herself in front of her own door. She hadn’t made any extra turns. The hallway didn’t curve. The klaxon was still sounding off. Again, the captain, or someone, said, “Please report to your emergency meeting area,” and so again she lit out. Again, she wound up in front of her door. She looked up and down the passageway, but nobody was there.
Her door began to open. She watched it, fascinated. Trevor stepped out. It wasn’t her room: it was his.
“I’m lost,” she said.
He sounded like he had been sleeping. “How long has that been going off?”
“The alarm? Ten minutes, maybe,” she said. “An hour. It feels like an hour. It’s disorienting.”
“We’d better go. They’re pretty serious about these things.”
She trailed after him. They turned right at the bathroom, the very same bathroom she had turned right at earlier, but this time they came almost immediately upon a small area where the hall met another hallway. Natasha, Maria, and Saliha were there. So was a crew member and a man in a kitchen uniform, but not the first mate who’d delivered the orientation. The crew member was holding a clipboard.
“Finally,” Natasha said. The man in the kitchen uniform seemed to take this as a cue and left.
The crew member had Trevor and Ruby initial a sign-up sheet that had nothing on it but the other three’s initials. “That’s all of us, then,” he said briskly.
“All of us?” Trevor asked.
The crew member was writing rapidly. He spoke without looking up. “There are several evacuation meeting points. They’ve been designed to get you to safety as quickly as possible, so you’ll want to make sure you remember yours.” He clicked his pen shut. “Okay, stay here until they sound the all clear.” He left in the direction opposite that taken by the man in the kitchen uniform.
The all clear never sounded. It took some time before one of them summoned the gumption to suggest they all just leave.
By then it was dinnertime, so they made their way to the dining room, which was located one level down from the lab, the cabins, and the workout room. Meals were laid out and the doors unlocked three times a day: seven, noon, and six in the evening. There were dozens of tables, but the food was always at the table farthest from the entrance so that you had to cross the whole room to reach it. Something about the huge room and the scores of empty chairs discouraged lingering.
As they ate, Trevor asked Saliha how she had gotten into her field.
She said that as an undergrad she had taken a psychology class where she learned about an experiment in which a nine-month-old baby, Little Albert, had been conditioned to fear animals that he had not previously feared: rats, dogs, rabbits. The scientists would present him with one of the animals and at the same time hit a metal bar directly above his head with a hammer. Because most if not all infants react fearfully to loud noises, Little Albert began to also fear animals.
“So you were interested in that? Conditioning behavior in humans?” Trevor said.
“Not quite,” Saliha said. “What I found most interesting is that today, the experiment would not be performed. It would be unethical. The challenge of gathering knowledge under the constraints of ethics is what I find exciting about our fields. Shortcuts will always have an impact on someone. Sometimes it’s thousands of people, like the thalidomide babies, and sometimes it’s just one person.”
“Like Little Albert,” Maria said.
“Exactly. But not only that. Not taking shortcuts also impacts someone, someone who might be depending on us while we figure out an ethical way to embark on our research.”
“It’s interesting to think about everything we’d know if we didn’t have things like laws and ethics,” Trevor said. He was using a knife to scoot some bright yellow rice pilaf onto his fork and so missed the contemptuous look Natasha favored him with. “That’s what war criminals are for,” she said.
On her way to the rec room, Ruby had to pass the lab, where she often saw the three women moving about in lab coats, sometimes gloves and safety glasses, labeling containers and typing on computers that were suspended on arms from the ceiling. Their research determined their daily schedules so that even the quotidian was dictated by advanced thinking. Saliha usually left lunch early to check on her rats, whose circadian rhythms and other behaviors she was monitoring as the submarine went deeper and deeper. Natasha was always late for breakfast because she had to record observations first thing in the morning. She was there to study marine snow, the slow drift of organic waste matter in the water. There were organisms out there that existed entirely on the stuff. Natasha had racks and racks of samples in tubes that looked like water until you put one up to a bright light, and then you could see the particles clouding the water. The searchlights outside the submarine’s viewing window did this, too. Once you began to focus on the particles, it was easy to go cross-eyed and stop noticing everything else, even the bioluminescent creatures glittering past in the dark: tiny dragonfish; little glowing jellies; and anglerfish, their lures lighting up their nightmare needle teeth.
“So, what did you do before this?” Natasha asked Ruby. They were watching a movie in the rec room. Trevor was trying to fix the hockey table.
“I was a receptionist at a church.”
“What does that entail?” Natasha asked. On the TV, Kevin Costner was peeing.
“It’s not much different from other office jobs. A lot of scheduling. I had to take over the altar server schedule after the vice president of the Italian League quit. The kids are supposed to find substitutes if they can’t make it, but they never do.”
“But you must have been pretty involved, right? To get sent?”
“Honestly,” Ruby said, “I think a lot of people said no.”
Trevor said, “It’s not important that they said no. It’s important that you said yes.”
Natasha ignored him. “I looked it up online. They think it’s just people who saw seals or giant squid, the way they thought manatees were mermaids. What’s the paper say?”
Ruby shrugged. “I think it tells them to get in touch. It’s probably in Latin.”
“So you haven’t seen it?”
“I didn’t open it. If we find them, I give it to them.”
Natasha shook her head. “The shit we put up with to get funding.”
“The more preconceived notions you bring in with you, the less you get out of a situation,” Trevor said. “The harder they come, the harder they—”
“This movie is even worse than I remember,” Natasha said abruptly, and stood up and left. Ruby was surprised by this, but then later realized that Natasha and Trevor must have already been fucking by that point.
The first time Ruby and Trevor had had sex was tricky, the starts and stops of a sober first time amplified by the cramped environment. The bunks were narrow and low, and everything was metal.
The best way to do it ended up being over a chair pushed against the wall, Trevor behind her. Of all the things about Trevor, and about her plus Trevor as a thing, this she minded the least. She found that the position suited her in terms of depth and angle.
The Midnight Zone
Ruby, walking down the hall to the communal bathroom, saw Trevor standing completely still outside the workout room window. She knew what he was looking at. She could hear the pneumatic exhales of the equipment, knew that the three others were in there. She had watched them, too.
Ruby never stayed long, afraid they’d turn and spot her, or see her reflection in the mirrors. They all wore white earbuds and workout clothing, breathable and wicking. It hadn’t even occurred to Ruby to pack workout clothing. As she watched, they all three seemed to grow streamlined, longer-limbed, more lithe, more wondrously female, rising up with each stroke of their machines like Venus, the mussel-black stationary bikes and StairMasters their shells.
Brushing her teeth in the bathroom, Ruby looked in the small hazy mirror over the sink. She thought about how Natasha’s long braids stayed centered exactly at the small of her back, even as she went up and down on the workout machine, so regal was her posture; and she thought of Saliha’s calves and the gentle flexing of the muscles beneath the sleek skintight leggings; and Maria’s narrow ankles like swans’ necks, the slight sheen on her forehead as if applied by a makeup artist. Ruby watched in the mirror as a pimple scar on her chin started to darken and widen, become a blemish, a blotch, a continent. The hair on her arms grew long and coarse, and her lips became drier and then cracked open to show bright seams of blood. Her teeth yellowed and her gums receded. A freckle on her neck put out two wiry hairs that could probably pick up radio signals, and then the freckle became a mole, grew taller and more three-dimensional and developed cancer. She watched it all, mesmerized. If she went out in the hall, stood very still and waited, she could really scare someone, the way she looked.
The halls were carpeted with dark red movie theater carpet. The lighting was of varying quality so that you might at any moment step from a well-lit stretch of hallway into a dim wavering pool. When the lights shut off at night, they were replaced with a strip of guide lights on only one side of the hallway, which sometimes made Ruby feel as though she was walking on a tilt. You could, in theory, use the guide lights to find your way back, keeping them always on your right or whatever, but if she was in the rec room or the viewing room when the overhead lights went off, she’d usually stay put until the artificial morning. If she was in the rec room, she tended to stay up all night watching movies, then sleep when she returned to her cabin; on such days, she often missed breakfast and sometimes lunch.
Returning to her cabin one of those mornings, she’d seen Natasha coming out of Trevor’s room, sneakers in hand. It was then Ruby realized that it was not a commentary on Kevin Costner that Natasha’s suddenly quitting the rec room had indicated, but one related to Trevor. Ruby thought now too of when Maria had first explained the work she did and the organisms that lived around the thermal vent—extremophiles—and Trevor had said, “I consider myself an extremophile. Carpe diem, right?” Ruby realized Maria’s look of pure disbelief was twin to Natasha’s reaction in the rec room, and to the disgruntled feeling Ruby was beginning to feel anytime Trevor opened his mouth.
Ruby slept fitfully on the nights she camped in front of the viewing window. The couches were not uncomfortable, but the room was large and with the window it was like sleeping in public. She would come in and out of consciousness to catch glimpses of huge things, or the ends of huge things, as the creatures passed out of the submarine spotlights; when she finally rose in the morning, she often had trouble determining which had been dreams and which had not: the flat long end of an oarfish hanging down from the top of the window, its tulle-like fin fluttering, the part she could see suggesting a fish as long as a telephone pole is tall; an anglerfish, the male, atrophied into a sperm sac, attached to the much bigger female; spider crabs or skateboard-sized isopods clinging to the cliffside or crawling over the whale falls and other carcasses that had settled onto ledges.
Natasha said the isopods were really just enormous roly-polys. “Things get bigger down here. It’s called abyssal gigantism. Maybe because it’s cold or there isn’t enough food. It takes longer to reach maturity, so they keep growing.”
They were sitting on one of the couches: a whale carcass had sunk into sight, and now it was keeping pace with the submarine. It was covered with writhing hagfish lacing muscularly in and out of the holes they’d chewed into the whale’s side and head. Over the two weeks since the dive had begun, they’d seen a number of these in varying states falling sedately past the viewing window; each one sported a unique variety of creatures that had chosen to help it in its transformation. Now that they were deeper, the carcasses were usually more thoroughly broken down by the time they came into view; this one, however, was relatively intact.
“You’re sleeping with him, too, aren’t you?” Natasha said.
“A few times.” Ruby wondered if she should mention she thought Maria was, too, but then she was surprised to see that Natasha’s face was buried in her hands. “Hey, now,” Ruby said tentatively.
“I don’t know why it bothers me,” Natasha said to her palms. “Maybe it’s because I’m competitive. Or stupid.” She began to rub her eyes with her fingertips vigorously. “Maybe my emotions are experiencing abyssal gigantism.” She brought her hands down and blinked many times, and then pointed at the whale; by now, most of the flank closest to them had been eaten away. “Sometimes the bones drop out the bottom of the whale when it’s still decomposing and the blubber is released. Tons of it.” Natasha explained that while the bones sank, the blubber floated up to the surface and sometimes landed on beaches, terrorizing whoever found it, this pile of hide and fat, its form untied by decomposition and then restrung by the currents into something not resembling a whale. “Those things people find on beaches and they think they’re sea monsters? It’s really just piles of fat. They’re called globsters.”
“I feel like a globster sometimes,” Ruby said. This, as she had hoped, made Natasha laugh.
After Natasha left for the lab, Ruby stayed. The big, gently plummeting whales made Ruby think of astronauts who had become untethered from their space stations and were now floating into a great void. She watched until it finally outpaced them and descended past the bottom of the viewing window, and then she was alone.
“L’appel du vide,” Trevor said. Ruby jumped. He had come up behind her and gone to the viewing window and was now also looking down into the darkness.
“That feeling you get when you’re up high that you want to jump.”
Ruby knew this feeling: high balconies, a trip as a child to Hoover Dam, giddiness. What happened if you jumped? It might be exactly what you think. Or it might be something different. There was only one way to find out.
But, not particularly interested in common ground with Trevor at the moment, she said flatly, “Like suicide?”
“No,” Trevor said. “Like curiosity.”
They rarely saw fish anymore. The organisms they did see were often a worn-out sort of white, sometimes a strange dark red color that Ruby couldn’t recall ever having seen in nature above the water. It was difficult to recognize the life they now saw as animals. The basket stars, for instance, looked like plants. They were usually curled like fists with dozens of fingers, and their long, fern-like arms unfurled to feed before clenching back up.
The cliffside was thick with rock chimneys that jutted out and up, some as tall as multiple-story buildings. Great white plumes of hot gasses blew from their tops, and the water was rippled and glassy-looking from the heat. Sometimes on the big ledges there would be whole fields of chimneys, with groups clustered into towers that loomed over the rest. Maria said they had names like Loki’s Castle and the Lost City.
“Some of the organisms that live around these vents only live in that one particular vent,” Maria said. “In the entire world, our entire planet, they can only be found right there. So each time one of those vents goes dormant, for all we know, we’ve lost an entire species.”
One day at lunch, Ruby learned that Saliha’s rats had died. Natasha and Maria seemed bothered by this news, but Saliha was thoughtful and quiet.
Trevor said, “You know what I’m thinking? If the crew came and killed them, we would never know. All that chicken they’ve been serving us?”
“It’s not funny,” Natasha said.
Saliha said patiently, “All the bodies are accounted for.”
“Are you sure?”
“I dissected them and incinerated them.”
“Wow,” said Trevor.
“Not that I agree with Trevor,” Maria said, “but he has a point. We’re totally segregated from the rest of the sub. We can’t see behind the scenes back on the surface, either. I was thinking about it the other day—it’s like this one time, I was maybe seven, and I grabbed a gallon of milk from the case at the store and a hand suddenly reached out from inside the case and started straightening out all the milk jugs. It had never even occurred to me that there was something back there. It scared me.”
“Think about it,” Trevor insisted. “If the crew just disappeared, we’d have no way of knowing.”
“Stop it,” Natasha said. “All this Halloween shit. You won’t stop talking about the Flying Dutchman—”
“Doomed to forever wander the seas . . .” Trevor intoned.
“If you know something, say it. If you don’t, shut up.”
Trevor turned to the others. “She won’t listen, but I’m telling you, I got a spooky feeling when we signed that paper during the emergency drill—like we were signing our souls away.”
Natasha said despairingly, “Oh my God.”
Saliha cut in. “Listen, rats die. When I was at Caltech, the control group and the test group just—bam.” She paused, then said, “Have you ever heard of the fear frequency?”
Maria said, “They discovered it accidentally in the eighties.”
“Yeah, that one. It’s a tone that makes you feel scared. It tells your brain there’s a presence in your vicinity—you’ll even see movement around you. As soon as the noise stops, the feeling goes away.”
“Okay, there you go,” Natasha said. “Maybe the engines are humming at that frequency and some of us, like Trevor, are particularly sensitive to it.”
Saliha said, “What do you think, Ruby? We never see the crew. We should have reached the bottom of any abyss on Earth by now.”
Ruby said, “Wait—when were we supposed to get to the bottom?”
Maria said, “There was a pretty broad window on the itinerary I saw. We know more about the moon than we know about the ocean floor. We were meant to spend a week in each post-photic zone, which we did, but we’ve now been in the abyss for two weeks. Even if we’ve spent more time moving laterally than vertically . . .” She looked pensively at the other two women. Natasha shook her head and Saliha shrugged. “We each came up with a different estimate of how long it should’ve taken.”
“Wildly different?” Trevor asked.
“Close enough to know it’s been more than enough time.”
Saliha had turned back to Ruby. “Any theories?”
Ruby was reaching into the past now to something the high school boyfriend had once said. “Maybe,” she said, “okay—maybe it’s like that planet that crashed into Earth? That formed the moon?”
They were all looking at her. Maria was frowning. She said, “Theia? That’s just a theory.”
“But isn’t it inside the earth now, and if you keep going down into a cave, you can end up inside it?”
“Come on, people, hollow Earth theories went out with the hobble skirt,” Natasha said.
Late that evening, Trevor said to Ruby, “Do you think Saliha is here to study us? All, What’s your theory? What’s your idea? How do you feel?”
“What? Why would she?” Ruby asked. Ruby had come to Trevor’s cabin, feeling restless, but now she had an urge to get away, particularly when she realized Trevor wanted to talk.
“I don’t know,” Trevor said slowly. “I’m still trying to figure that out.”
“You picked the team,” Ruby said. “What did you hire her to do?”
“Observations on the sea monks. How human are they? I was told to find a human behavior specialist instead of, like, a fish scientist. They want to emphasize the human in any reports. I was told there’s some pushback against integrating the sea monks into the Church, especially in America. American Catholics are notoriously conservative. I guess there used to be a saint with a dog’s head, but they demoted him.”
“I thought she was studying her rats.”
“She’s obligated to report on the sea monks when we find them, but the rats are her own research. When I first started wondering about her, I thought they were just a cover: you know, give her something to do that would distract us from the truth, that we’re the lab rats. But now I think they’re a key part of the whole setup: I bet she killed them to see how we would react. Saying we haven’t reached the bottom—same thing. She’s applying the screws now.”
The linchpin of Trevor’s argument was that Saliha wouldn’t sleep with him. “It’s not that she doesn’t want to. She can’t. It would be unethical.”
“Wouldn’t trapping people on a submarine be unethical?”
“That’s what all the Little Albert stuff was about. She was trying to tell us she feels guilty.”
This had gone far enough: Ruby said, “I don’t care about Saliha. I think you’re a fraud.”
Trevor looked surprised. “That’s a lot of negative energy right there,” he said, gesturing at the air between the two of them.
“Nobody would put you in charge of an expedition,” Ruby said. “You act like you’re some expert but all the sea monk stories you told me are on Wikipedia. You don’t know any more about any of this than I do!”
Trevor leaned with one shoulder against the top bunk, his arms crossed. “You know the others think you’re a Vatican agent? A spy.” This made Ruby pause.
“It’s not true,” she said.
“I know it’s not true.”
“Why would they say that? I’m pro-choice.”
“I’m just guessing, but you remember their open letter in the Times? It was about stem cell research. They’re paranoid. They probably think they’re on some Vatican watch list now and you’re here to monitor their research, sabotage it, even. Maybe they think you killed the rats.”
“I’ve never even been in the lab!”
“Look, I said it was a guess. They’re highly educated women, in very specialized fields, but they don’t know shit about the real world. It’s what the ivory tower is all about. They can’t believe that people really are just receptionists. They don’t know that the rest of us are just putting our heads down and keeping on . . .”
Ruby resented this: she might only have an imprecise idea of what peer review was, and she might not have an opinion on whether DOIs reinforced an already-racist taxonomy (a discussion sustained through lunch and dinner earlier that day), but she certainly had more in common with the other three than she did with Trevor. She said, “The Vatican doesn’t even have spies.”
“Come on, yes they do. I meant I don’t think you’re the spy.” He said fondly: “You’re a mess.”
“This is some divide and conquer bullshit. You’re trying to distract me,” Ruby said. “We’re talking about you.”
Trevor said suddenly, “You’re right. I’ve misled you, misled you all.” He grasped her hands in his and began to talk very quickly. “On my CV? Says I have a BA. But I don’t! Never graduated. Junior year—couldn’t pay my student fees. Wow, that feels good to get that out in the open! You won’t expose me, will you?” And then he burst out laughing.
The next day, instead of lunch, they found the leftovers from breakfast still on the table. Trevor was still there too, sitting in the same chair he’d been in that morning, intensely zoning out. When roused he explained that he’d been waiting since breakfast to catch sight of the kitchen staff. Among other things, he wanted to discuss the menus, which had gotten progressively less diverse until they were eating chicken breast with mushroom cream sauce, wild rice, a side salad with Italian dressing, and a roll three times a day; also, could the dressing please be on the side. Ruby often needed to pause to remember if it was the lunch or dinner chicken. Breakfast was easier to differentiate, as there was still coffee, though the cream had long ago been replaced with a bowl of Coffee-Mates.
Maria said, “Why are the breakfast things still here?”
“Nobody came,” Trevor said.
“Because you were in here!” Natasha said.
“Yeah, that’s the thing,” Trevor said. “Why do they wait for us to leave?”
They sat down. There was scattered conversation, but it was as if they didn’t want to be too engaged when lunch arrived. But it never came.
At six o’clock, they returned and found Trevor in the same chair, the same array of dirty dishes before him. He was asleep, his arms folded and his head down.
“I think we should set a watch,” he said when they’d woken him up. “How many of us are there, four? So, six hours each?”
“No,” Natasha said impatiently. “There’s five of us.”
Trevor was staring past them, frowning. “I still think we should give it a try,” he said. Then he shrugged and picked up the cup in front of him, drank the melted ice, and stood. About half an hour after he had left, the other four left as a group. There was an agreement that they would prevent Trevor from lingering the next day after breakfast.
The next morning, the table was laid. All seemed forgiven, the chicken breast less dry than usual, the romaine icy and crisp in a way it hadn’t been in a long time. After eating, everyone, including Trevor, immediately left the dining room.
Two days later, days happily free of mealtime complications, Maria came into the rec room, visibly agitated. “I’ve just spoken to the captain.”
“You saw him?” Natasha asked. None of them had ever seen the captain.
“No,” Maria said. “I spoke with him on the intercom by the gym. You just push the white button. Trevor showed me.”
Saliha said, “He knew? I wonder how he knew.”
“He looks like the kind of person who would just push a button. Who can’t help but push buttons,” Natasha said. “Like a little kid.”
They all went down the hall and crowded around the intercom.
“Who did you talk to, again?” Natasha said.
“The captain,” Maria said. She paused. “He said he was the captain.”
“What’s his name?” Ruby asked.
Maria turned to look at her. “You guys don’t believe me,” she said.
“We believe you,” Saliha said. She put her hand on Maria’s arm.
Maria said, “I called him because we’re passing a hydrothermal field, one of the biggest I’ve ever seen. Unbelievably active. Crawling with life. I wanted to stop and send the cameras out. He said we couldn’t stop.”
“What’s that mean?” Natasha asked sharply. She reached out and pushed the button, said, “Hello,” brusquely at the box.
“I had to wait a while before I got anyone,” Maria said.
Trevor had come out of the workout room. They hadn’t realized he was in there. He was shirtless and held a small towel. He had a seamless tan that Ruby had never noticed. The tan made it seem as though he’d only recently joined them on the submarine.
“I thought you didn’t work out,” Natasha said.
“Have to keep busy somehow,” Trevor said. “Impress you ladies.” When nobody responded to this, he asked, “What’s going on?”
“Hey, hey,” Natasha was saying into the box. “Hello?”
Trevor said, “It can take a while. And they don’t always answer.”
“What do you tell them?” Natasha asked him. “What do you say to them?”
Trevor reached over and gently removed Natasha’s finger from the button. “If you keep holding it down, you won’t hear them when they reply.” Natasha snatched her hand away from him. “I know that,” she snapped.
Trevor sighed. He said, “I don’t tell them anything. I’ve asked them to replace the lightbulb over my sink seven times. They tell me to restrict intercom use to emergencies.”
“This is an emergency. Maria can’t do her work. We all have contracts, you know, to produce a certain amount and type of material.”
“I do know. I had to sign off on all that, remember?”
“So what’re you going to do about it? You’re the team leader.”
Trevor paused, as if deliberating. Then he said to Natasha, “You’re the one who is worried that changing ocean temperatures will affect the composition of your marine snow and destroy the food chain and life as we know it, right?”
“I’m worried because it’s already happening,” Natasha said.
“And haven’t you also been taking data on microplastics in the water, the microbeads and whatever?”
“Yeah, you know that already.”
“Well, then, be happy Maria can’t do her work. She works for Shell. What do you think she does in Venezuela? Thermal vents are notoriously mineral-rich.”
“I told you not to—” Maria began angrily.
“Pillow talk,” Trevor said. He turned and walked down the hall.
“Pillow talk?” Saliha was asking Maria, who said, “He’s mad at me.”
“What a piece of shit,” Natasha said.
Ruby thought this might be a good time to follow up with how Trevor had accused her of killing the rats, but she couldn’t bring herself to become, in the eyes of the others, the sort of person who believed Trevor.
Saliha was now asking Ruby: “Not you too?”
Ruby said, “A few times. Not recently.”
“You can’t let him get to you,” Natasha said.
“Am I the only one who turned him down?” Saliha exclaimed.
Ruby had fallen asleep in front of the viewing window. When she woke up, she turned on her side and looked blearily out the window, blinking to clear the gumminess out of her eyes. Outside, the lights had just picked out a large patch of tube worms that furred the cliffside. They made Ruby think of cilia, as if the sub were now within some huge vital organ, from a long-ago high school science textbook.
A small part of her felt a little flattered that the others thought she was a spy. In the rec room was an extravagant James Bond VHS set that stopped right before Pierce Brosnan. What would a spy do if her cover was blown? Only Trevor knew that she was aware of the others’ theory, so she’d need to get rid of Trevor. It would be a net benefit anyway: he was sowing dissension, trying to get them to turn on one another. A spy knew how to work for some greater good, even when the work was distasteful; a spy would wait for him in the hallway, her hands and feet braced against the walls to keep herself suspended up near the ceiling, then drop down and eliminate him, push the evidence out of an air lock. He would be an offering to the sea. She imagined tendrils of warm currents curling around him as he was borne up, swaddling him against the cold of the deep water until he could be delivered to the surface. Or maybe his bones would fall out the bottom of him, his destiny to terrorize the beaches. She imagined the ecosystem that might colonize his body. Like a whale fall, he would become an entire planet to the decomposers, and they would devour him, and he would give them life.
For the first time since they had embarked on their voyage, she thought of the benefactress’s lost husband and sons. Even if there had been nothing or nobody to take them in once they had plunged toward the bottom of the abyss, she wondered if the woman would ever draw comfort that at least each of them had become a planet, a source of life. She tried to think if she would ever be able to cherish this idea, if one day, like people who jumped to defy a burning building, they would decide to leave the sub and become something new.
She sat up. There was something outside the window. She suspected the thing had been gesturing at her for some time, trying to get her attention. She ran to the window.
The sea monk was emerging from the gloaming of the cliffside. She thought she saw two big black eyes, gentle round eyes, unhuman eyes, but she wasn’t sure: the sea monk was holding one fin up to shield its face from the submarine spotlights. As Ruby stared, the spotlights lit up a shimmering veined pattern on its fin that struck Ruby’s eyes with a disorienting blue-and-green dazzle; Ruby rubbed her eyes and tried to peer past the burning afterimages. The sea monk was as tall as a house. The Vatican had gotten it so wrong! The bull they had prepared, scaled for a human, would be novelty-sized for this abyssal giant; it would be like trying to read fine print on a matchbook.
Ruby pushed her face against the window. The sea monk was waving a great diaphanous fin, beckoning in a slow and elegant sweeping motion of welcome that seemed capable of carrying the entire submarine to its scaled glittering breast. Ruby banged on the plexiglass, shouted for someone to come, to help, to get the captain, as the submarine continued to descend.
Bridget Chiao Clerkin lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee.