Waters of Lethe
By Ian Sales
UNLIKE THE SPACECRAFT WHICH brought it to Europa, the bathyscaphe is sleek and streamlined. It floats in the centre of the ice-cavern, held in place by a web of hoses and cables. Beneath it, a circular shaft thirty metres in diameter has been drilled through two kilometres of ice to the moon’s world-ocean. The bathyscaphe’s hull is a blunt aerofoil fifteen metres long and a third of that in height, painted in bold yellow and black squares. It is poised leading-edge downward, as if impatient to fly at the water far below. Beneath the hull hangs a red spherical gondola, boasting a single small and bright eye.
He has fought for that window, though it weakens the structure of the pressure-sphere within the gondola. To sink to such depths and not see his surroundings with his own eyes would render the descent pointless. He will be a witness for all: the light must hit his retinas unmediated by technology.
Or they might as well send a remotely-operated vehicle.
He pushes himself from the entrance, and sails across the cavern some three metres above the ice floor. As he passes over the shaft, he looks down. He cannot fall, but his pulse still quickens. The shaft narrows to a blue-white point: it is a well so deep, the dark water at its bottom is beyond sight. He has dreamt of black water, of lightless oceans, for weeks now; he remembers having similar nightmares as a child. Then, it was the opacity of the water and what might lie hidden beneath its placid surface, ready to leap out and pull him under. Now, his fears are intellectual, informed by engineering and science—pressure, distance, temperature.
Reaching for a cable, he brings himself to a halt, and hangs beside the bathyscaphe’s gondola. The two-metre sphere of graphene will protect him from the crushing pressure in the depths of Europa’s ocean as he descends one hundred kilometres through water that has never been warmed by the light of the sun. Although ten times deeper than Earth’s deepest ocean, the low gravity means the ocean-bed pressure is some 1,300 kilograms per square centimetre, only twenty percent more than its Earthly equivalent.
The hull of the bathyscaphe is constructed of syntactic foam and dense metal ballast. This last is needed so the vessel actually sinks—that low Europan gravity again, only 0.134 times that of Earth. The hull also contains: cameras, detectors, lights, manoeuvring ducted-propellers and batteries.
He has named the bathyscaphe the Rhadamanthus, after one of the sons of Europa. Rhadamanthus was made one of the judges of the dead. He hopes he has not chosen a fateful name—but choosing a name from mythology always seems to make a hostage to fortune of a craft.
He is busy checking the bathyscaphe’s systems when hydraulics close the hatch, sealing him inside the pressure-sphere. The clunks of battens engaging cause him to look up from the screen, though the hatch is behind and above him. Another screen to his right confirms the seal, and he passes this confirmation over the VHF to the support team. He wonders that he feels nothing at his imprisonment in this small sphere, surrounded by life support, supplies of food and drinking water and oxygen, electronics, touch-screens—all of the bathyscaphe’s equipment which requires Earth sea-level pressure to function. Which, he realises, describes himself too. He has been so busy working his way through menus, ensuring the various systems are all operating within tolerances, that he has more or less forgotten the purpose of it all. But that hatch closing, the finality of it, sealing him inside ... Surely that should trigger something? He porpoises about and stretches out until his head is by the tiny window. He peers through its thick polycarbonate but can see only a wall of the ice-cavern.
“You ready?” asks a voice on his headphones.
He replies automatically, “Yes.”
The prospect of travelling to a place where the pressure is thirteen thousand tons per square metre fills him with neither fear nor excitement. The fact he will be the first person to visit the floor of Europa’s ocean feels almost academic, as if it were an achievement he were experiencing vicariously on some entertainment channel. In a manner of speaking, it will be vicarious—he is, after all, sealed inside this graphene sphere. He will not be able to enter the water himself.
“Releasing cables,” says the support team.
The Rhadamanthus remains hovering above the well. Slowly, she begins to drift downward. It is not quick enough, despite the bathyscaphe’s ballast, so he engages the airfans. He has seen them simulated and tested, but he cannot hear the high-pitched whine he knows they produce. The Rhadamanthus is propelled downward into the well. Polished white walls slide past. He watches the radar screen, ready to cut the fans one hundred metres above the surface of the water. But he has many minutes yet.
Will he find life in the depths of Europa’s oceans, he wonders? For over a century, scientists have theorised it could exist, though no one has made a serious search for it. The hunt for life is not one of his dive’s priorities—he is simply descending to the bottom of the ocean because no one else has. There are few places left in the solar system that have not been explored. It is the desire to be first to one of those that has put him here in this gondola.
One hundred metres above the ocean surface, he cuts the airfans. The Rhadamanthus continues to fly downward, slowing imperceptibly. The gondola hits the water, and the pressure-sphere shakes about him. He remains steady, floating in its centre. The beam of pearly light from the window is abruptly cut off. He pulls himself down and peers out into the water. But all he can see is an oily blackness which dimly reflects his own features. He reaches out and switches on the outside lights. It does not help much—a murky dimness is all that is now visible, and it gradually fades away into nothing. He looks up and checks the screen above the window. The depth gauge reveals he is floating just beneath the surface, sinking at a rate of twenty metres per minute. He reconfigures the airfans as water impellers. The Rhadamanthus is driven downward, its airfoil hull helping it slip through the ocean.
It will be two or three days before he reaches the ocean floor one hundred kilometres below. He will spend that entire time cooped up inside this two-metre sphere. There will be little enough for him to do—the Rhadamanthus is mostly automatic. Though he spends long minutes peering out of the tiny window, there is nothing to see. And it will likely remain that way until he reaches the ocean floor. Perhaps there he will find some diatomaceous ooze, or whatever the Europan equivalent might be. Assuming, of course, that life of some description does exist in this frigid black ocean.
For a brief moment, he imagines a giant Europan kraken—and it would be huge, with such an ocean in which to live and play; with arms hundreds of metres, perhaps even kilometres, long, and eyes as large as a house. After all, there is more water on Europa than there is on Earth, almost three times as much. He smiles at his flight of fancy, knowing full well it is impossible. What would such a creature eat? There would have to be a thriving ecosphere to support a giant kraken, and evidence of that would have been discovered by now.
He takes another look through the window, and then scans the various screens arranged about the sphere’s interior. There is no evidence of anything but water surrounding him. Water, water, everywhere; in every direction.
Nothing but water.
He floats in the centre of the spherical gondola, listening through headphones to the support team in the ice-cavern above, watching the screens affixed to the inner surface of the pressure-sphere, monitoring his rate of descent, the operations of the bathyscaphe’s various systems ... His workload is chiefly makework, but at least it gives him something to do in the long lightless hours of his days and nights. His only real link to the “real world” is a circular window fifteen centimetres in diameter and through which he can see only a featureless gloomy grey into which the Rhadamanthus’ arc-lights diffuse. The water is as clear as diamond and it is only in the refraction of the arc-lights’ illumination that he can detect its presence. A globe of pale yellow surrounds the gondola, its edges fading away into impenetrable blackness.
The lightless cold of Europa’s ocean threatens to overwhelm him, so he populates it with the waters of memory. This bathyscaphe has been comprehensively tested, as has its pilot. He has taken the Rhadamanthus to the floor of the Puerto Rico Trench, 8.5 kilometres below the surface of the Atlantic Ocean. He has visited Challenger Deep in the Pacific, eleven kilometres below the surface, where the pressure is one thousand atmospheres. He is the last in only a small handful of people to have seen the ocean bed there. He remembers pale sand, an aetherial blue in the Rhadamanthus’ lights, untrodden, pristine.
He has spent a week living in an underwater habitat at a depth of ten metres. He has seen the strangest of creatures in their natural habitats, he has seen shipwrecks, the broken corpses of engineering and technology, alive with submarine fauna.
This world-ocean cannot compare. A sense of lifelessness seems to seep through the graphene of the pressure-sphere. As he sinks through its lightless water, so he finds himself descending through remembered sun-lit oceans. He longs for something with which to share this desolation. The support team in the ice-cavern is scant comfort. Though he talks to its members constantly, he cannot connect emotionally with their distant voices. Their conversations are chiefly technical ... And then he will find himself talking about some childhood memory, his recollection of it bright and shining in his mind. At age eight, training himself to reach the three-metre-deep bottom of a local swimming pool. Snorkeling in the Caribbean while on holiday with his parents. The day he saved a friend’s sister from drowning after they had both been pulled out of their depth by a riptide. He tells these stories to his support team, purging himself of the joy and wonder the seas of Earth have given him in an effort to make himself receptive to alien marvels.
Though he has visited the surface of the Moon, trod foot on Mars, and viewed Venus from orbit, he could not get excited about what he saw. Dead worlds, devoid of mystery, lacking the rich and strange fecundity of the oceans. Whatever puzzles they presented were governed by the cold equations of physics and chemistry. There is, he feels, something heartless in it, something which resists the human need to impose narrative. He describes to the support team books he read as a child on the mysteries of the deep, on famous historical disappearances at sea. He treasured the riddles and romances, he revelled in the lack of answers.
The sea attracts him in part because of its unknowable nature. This ocean beneath the ice is a mystery wrapping a world. Yet the further he descends, the more he realises it is closer in spirit to the dust seas of the Moon than it is the fertile oceans of Earth.
His support team wakes him on the morning of his third day with the news he is no more than an hour away from the ocean floor.
“You’ve done it,” he’s told over the underwater comms. “You made it all the way down.”
Before replying he checks the sensors—pressure: 1,296.6 atmospheres; water temperature: 4°C.
“I guess so,” he says, though he has difficulty mustering the necessary enthusiasm.
This long, mostly silent descent through blackest water has felt like a fall through his own psyche. Though he has been in constant communication with the support team, with each metre he sank the more detached he had felt. Now, he might as well be a species apart, a denizen of this lightless ocean, a native Europan and the only life to exist here. What had seemed like a noble endeavour he now recognises as fruitless and meaningless. He has snatched the dubious honour of being the first human to visit the Europan ocean floor from ... Whom? Who, beside himself, would be so foolish as to consider this descent a notable achievement?
The money spent on this bathyscaphe, on the support team above, the journey to Europa, the ice-cavern and the well ... It feels wasted. He bends over and puts his face in his hands. How desperate he must have been, he thinks, to get his name into the history books. But this, the descent of the Rhadamanthus, this deserves to be no more than a footnote.
He pulls himself down to the window, and hangs there peering through it until one of the screens begins to let out a low ping. He looks up and sees he has less than a hundred metres to go; and realises he can remember nothing of the past hour. He returns his gaze to the view outside and ...
Yes, there it is. A pale and undulating monochrome landscape, not much different from a lunar mare.
“I can see it,” he tells the support team.
“What does it look like?” they demand.
“Like ... like ... like the bottom of the sea.”
The Rhadamanthus has come to a preprogrammed halt three metres above the ocean floor. He triggers a program to slowly spin the bathyscape through three hundred and sixty degrees. Everywhere, he sees the same—a dead world, a dead grey world under one hundred kilometres of water. There will be no lost cities down here, no alien remains; not even a microbe. The universe is not fecund, he knew that before leaving the Earth. This blackest water is the drowned dreams of humanity.
Just to make sure, he checks the reading from every one of the Rhadamanthus’ many and varied sensors. The water is by no means pure, but its only contaminants are mineral. Perhaps this is what those long ago scientists felt like when they saw the printouts from the experiments their space probes had performed after landing on the Moon, Mars, Venus ...
He turns off the bathyscaphe’s impellers; they are stirring the water and perhaps affecting the results. But no, ten minutes later the sensor readings have not changed. Except ...
The Rhadamanthus is moving. Slowly, almost imperceptibly; but somehow being drawn along the ocean-bed. A current? He triggers the active sonar in order to draw up a high-resolution picture of the bathyscaphe’s environs. This reveals that the water is still, that he has actually descended into a slot in the ocean floor some fifty metres deep and four hundred metres wide. He cannot tell how long it is. Within it, the water is motionless. The Rhadamanthus, however, is not.
Something about the water at the limits of the arc-lights’ globe of light persuades him to switch them off. The water snaps to black, and he blinks at the sudden darkness. No, not darkness. Now he can see faint luminance, a peculiar blue glow like Cherenkov radiation. It seems to be coming from ahead, from the direction toward which he is being pulled. He presses closer to the window, until the blue glow becomes blue light, begins to resolve into—
Hovering in the water is a glowing circle of pale electric blue. It resembles the surface of a pond of bright water, except it is vertical. For the first time, he feels real wonder. What is this? What could it be?
The bathyscaphe is being drawn toward it faster and more powerfully. He does not bother using the impellers to hold his position. He wants to get as close as possible to it, to be up against it. Or, perhaps, pass through it—
Blue light fills the window, sends a beam across the interior of the sphere. The Rhadamanthus shakes as if in turbulent water. The screens flicker and black lines zig and zag across them. He hovers, hands to the cold, curved inside surface of the pressure-sphere either side of the window, bathed in light of a preternatural cerulean, and he knows he has found something beyond the imagination of humankind.
Now he feels like a true explorer, a discoverer of the unknown.
Abruptly, he drops to the floor of the pressure-sphere and lets out a yelp. His hip and thigh are bruised, though he did not fall far. The tiny circular window abruptly glows bright and golden, as though a sun has just dawned where no light can reach. It is enough to make him look up. Puzzled, he turns to the screen showing an outside view. He can see a pale sky of beige and orange, stretching to the limits of vision. Wisps of brown clouds stream past at speeds which make them appear living. Some distance away, perhaps hundreds of kilometres away, great brown thunderheads roil across the sky, a pulsing wall of cloud that rolls and tumbles and shoots out turbid pillowy columns.
It is a moment before he realises he is falling. He can see nothing below, this sky is endless.
He cycles through the menus on one of the touch-screens, but the bathyscaphe’s systems can tell him nothing: they were not designed for this environment. His craft is still operating, the life support is still functional, but his surroundings remain a mystery. He tries contacting the support team on both the underwater comms and the VHF, but to no avail. The radio frequencies, in fact, are overwhelmed by interference, a wildly-modulating howling like the death song of some Brobdingnagian beast.
Pressed against the window, he peers out into the great brown sky, but nothing seems to change. After a while, he thinks he can detect faint layers, but they may be nothing more than an illusion brought on by straining his eyesight. He blinks and knuckles his eyes. When he returns to the window, he can see tiny black flecks far below him. Moment by moment, as the Rhadamanthus falls through this endless sky, so the dark spots seem to grow in size, gain shape and colour and texture.
Now they are no more than a kilometre or two below him, and stretching out on all sides. They form a diffuse layer across the sky, like the surface of an invisible ocean and ...
He sees small cruciform shapes, grouped together, and only after a moment’s thought identifies them as aeroplanes. They have barrel-like fuselages, great propellers on the nose, and long glass canopies. Over there is a ship, an ocean-going ship, with a grey hull and a complex series of cranes and girder-like structures between forward and aft superstructures. And beyond it, a similar vessel, and further away still, a sailing ship of some sort with five masts.
Quickly, he reconfigures the impellers back to airfans, and uses them to swing the Rhadamanthus slowly through three hundred and sixty degrees. Ships and aeroplanes spread out across a tan sky, silhouetted against a distant dark weather system, and he is falling among them. He falls through the thin layer they occupy, passing within tens of metres of a tramp freighter. He can just make out the name on its stern: SS Cotopaxi.
The bathyscaphe then plummets through several kilometres of clear sky. As he slowly rotates the Rhadamanthus, he realises he is caught in a band of still golden air between two walls of storm-wracked cloud, each running at differing speeds. And there, if he pans one of the external cameras upwards, he can see something vast and strange through wind-whipped brown haze. A brooding mass, reddish in hue, glowing like a baleful eye through a wall of storm.
Another layer of craft approaches below, scattered across the endless beige. He drops toward it and as he nears he realises he cannot determine the nature of the craft. These are not recognisably ships and planes. They may be vessels of some description, but not the type to see service in the skies, or on the seas, of Earth. Some are white and streaked with black, some are grey, some are black. None are streamlined, none seem to exhibit the proportions and shapes he expects.
The Rhadamanthus plummets through the alien craft, and he wonders at their provenance. He guesses they are spacecraft, but none of them are of a type he recognises, present-day or historical. He still does not know where he is, or how he arrived here. Clearly these other craft arrived here as mysteriously as he did, though not, he suspects, via the bottom of the Europan world-ocean.
As he sits within the pressure-sphere and gazes at the screens about him, he realises that the seas of Earth are merely a microcosm, and though they are wondrous, it is in a scale commensurate with their size. The universe is infinite in size and infinite in wonder. He has been blind to its marvels, refusing to see that its lack of life does not mean there is nothing within it worth exploring ...
He wonders at the size of this alien sky, how many layers of strange vessels he will pass through, and how far he will fall. Surely the pressure increases with every metre, every kilometre he plummets. How deep will he reach before the pressure-sphere implodes? It is rated to three thousand atmospheres.
Perhaps he will find another strange blue portal and it will transport him to another place.
Perhaps this is not the end; perhaps it is only the beginning.
Ian Sales won the 2012 BSFA Award for Short Fiction, and was a finalist for the 2012 Sidewise Award for Best Short-Form Alternate History. His stories have appeared in “Jupiter,” “M-Brane SF,” “Postscripts,” “BSF Journal,” and other publications.