According to US Navy tradition, submarines that have not been confirmed to be destroyed, are still on patrol. Since WWII, there have been 52 submarines that haven’t yet returned to port, yet to report in, nor have been confirmed to be destroyed. You are one of those, on the eternal patrol.
The mess hall was dark and brooding. Water leaked steadily in through the hole that had used to be the side of the craft, and now only stared mournfully out onto the open sea.
“Another SOS,” the captain said, what remained of his face clicking together. “Don the suits.”
I straightened the rest.
It wasn’t our job.
But it had never stopped us from trying to do the right thing.
The tight confines of the diving suit would’ve triggered my panic attacks if I could still draw air, but as it was, years had past since I’d felt anything constricting across my lungs, so I didn’t flinch as it it vainly pressurized.
For a moment, a brief flicker of panic at the feel of air, paradoxically pressed against my skin, when so much of it had already been replaced by bone and coral. A distant, stale taste of the shore, faint flowers. Reeds. Birds.
There were no birds here.
The captain was only distinguishable by his willingness to don the ruptured suit we’d reclaimed half a century ago off of an old pleasure cruiser, a patter of bullet holes crossing over the center. As he paced in front of us silently, awaiting the rest of us, eight in total, air bubbles flittered up and up and up from the holes.
Where did the air even come from? My thoughts were as slow and cold as the ocean itself.
But he had never succumbed. Not truly.
The submarine let out a horrendous noise, distorted and screaming by the water around it, and drifted towards a ship in the distance.
The radios didn’t work out here. They didn’t need to work out here.
The captain gestured freely into the distance where the ship rested.
It took several minutes of waiting like silent sentinels, the gargoyles of coral and bone we’d become, but slowly, we stopped beside the shift, the ocean wresting our momentum from us.
The captain retreated back into the submarine, and we boarded.
Cruise ship. To my eyes it was impossible to see that we’d built something that impossibly huge. Iron and steel crafted into a hull irresponsibly large; impossible decadent, with the air still pointlessly streaming as cabins capsized under pressure. How had it even gotten down here in one piece?
My diving suit left trails in the swarming ship worms crowding atop the structure, feasting on rust as it formed, and my fellows stepped alongside me. One by one we fanned out.
The dead remained dead on the topside of the ship. People who hadn’t managed to evacuate in time. Their mottled boats dappled the water far above like confetti, waves tossing and turning nervously.
What year was it.
What year was it?
My tired boots found their way to the main ladders and I descended into the depths of it. Lightbulbs paradoxically worked.
Music played in the depths from old loud speakers, unchoked by the briny dip.
A living ship.
There was someone still aboard this old wreck.
The captain’s quarters were lavishly furnished in the same way as the rest of the ship. A massive bed. Charts of the world.
A place where the man lived instead of a place where he worked.
All destroyed, in pieces. Water lapped at the top of the ceiling where stubborn air had yet to be forced out.
The captain nodded slowly at me as I joined in.
“Are you here to take me away?” he asked, staring at me. Blood trickled upward from the gunshot in his temple, though his skin still bore the faint flush of life.
Slowly, I wrenched my helmet off.
Air bubbled forth, and I shut off my mask.
“If you’d like,” I said, my coral teeth clicking together. “We can go together into the deep.”
“Do you know if… I’ll see my family again?” The dead man’s hands drifted over to the counter. The desk had been shot full of holes, and the gun floated nearby.
But the picture floating on it hadn’t been touched by water. A wife. Aunts. Uncles. A single girl. Young. Just barely an adult.
“When they die,” I said.
I didn’t know.
It wasn’t my job to know.
What year was it?
“What… year is it?”
He blinked at me. His eyes stared at where the coral had taken my eye socket. “2025.”
“You may have…” I trailed off. How were the other men faring? “One request from me.”
“I’d like to find my niece before we go. So I can apologize to her for getting her killed.”
Strangely attached for a man with a bullet in his skull. Determined to not have drowned. I found that fascinating.
“Shall we leave?” I asked, offering him my hand.
“To the depths of the ship?”
“To your niece,” I said.
The bottom decks of the ship were dry. Bone dry. Air strained against the water, fighting a losing battle. Music played desperately, shrieking out into the void, some voice distorted by distance from any ear that recognized it.
The captain stepped forward into the air and his head started leaking again, dripping blood in a cascade down his face.
After a moment of hesitation, I offered him my helmet. He put it on, hot brine in his lungs, and he stopped bleeding.
“Don’t you need this?”
“I’m not dead,” I said, plainly. “I moved on years ago from clinging to the top.”
“Will that happen to me?” he asked.
“We’ll take you to the Rift before then, Or you’ll fade into the brine.” I promised. “We always have taken those who cling to where they need to go.”
The captain stepped forward, his sodden feet ruining the carpet with blood and salt. Step after step. One by one.
But the deck we were on wasn’t yet dead.
And the door to his niece was tightly sealed.
Somehow, in the depths of the ocean, impossibly, paradoxically, I could hear someone breathing.
We had a live one.
A treasure beyond all else.