Monday, September 29, 2014

XBT (a short story)

            “Twenty shots until the next XBT.”
            It was nearing time to launch the next expendable bathythermograph probe, or XBT.  The software was readied and two scientists headed out of the lab, radio in hand.  They donned lifejackets that had once been bright orange but were now closer to a dull rust color from long and dirty use on the deck and selected a T-5 probe from the box.
            Out on the deck they were alone, perched partway up the stack of levels in the stern of the ship, the gun deck below them and the paravane deck above.  It seemed that the others working the graveyard shift were all inside, perhaps wrestling with some mechanical puzzle or else simply keeping watch to make sure all was well, sipping strong coffee, playing cards to pass the time.  The scientists snapped the probe into the gun-shaped launcher.  They removed the plastic end cap from the black cylinder that housed the probe and its spool of fine copper wire.
            “We’re in position.”
            There was a pause, then the radio crackled back, “Launch probe.”
            In a moment the probe was sliding down the long tube that extended out and downward from the starboard side.  With a small splash it plunged from the end of the tube into the inky deep.  Now to wait while it made its journey towards the bottom, more than 4000 meters below.  Despite the very late (or very early, depending on your point of view) hour, it was warm.  The air was muggy – not exactly a welcome change from the air-conditioned lab, although the tinge of diesel fumes was less out here in the relative open.  There was little wind and the seas were calm.  Standing on the moving island of light that was the ship the sea quickly disappeared into the surrounding void.  What surface that could be seen appeared to rise disturbingly close up alongside them, like a churning wall of water.  It was only visible at all by the few swirls of foam formed by the ship’s passage and a reflection here and there off the constantly moving face of the black oily-looking water.  They waited for the go ahead to terminate the probe.
            Down in the lab, there was a strange blip on the screen showing the multibeam bathymetry data, but no one noticed as they were too busy entering in location data for the XBT or scrutinizing the movement of the streamer birds that regulated the depth of the hydrophone streamer.  There were, after all, 36 other monitor screens to watch.
            Outside there was a louder than usual splash.  The two scientists peered into the gloom.
            “Dolphin?” one wondered out loud.
            “While we’re shooting?  I hope not,” the other replied, “We’ll end up having to interrupt the line.”
            Was there something just under the water surface?  A pale sinuous shape at the very edge of the ship’s halo of light?  No, it must be a trick of the light and the weird perspective engendered by the lack of any sense of distance.  Perhaps more coffee was in order when they got back inside.
            The radio crackled again, “Terminate probe.”
            The scientists broke the wire that was still spooling out to the probe that was now falling behind them.  “Probe terminated,” they reported.  They were just turning to leave when it emerged.
            At first it looked like a whale back, though pale milky green in color rather than the expected grey.  As it lifted free from the surface it became clear that it was much longer than an orca or even a grey whale, more like an ancient marble column turned soft and rubbery.  It tapered as more of its length was exposed until the tip broke free of the clinging water.  One side of the enormous snake-like shape was covered with round suckers the size of dinner plates in a poisonous green color.  The cyclopean tentacle towered out of the water, waving gently with a sickening sort of grace ten meters or more above the uppermost deck.  Here and there along its length were clots of a coppery tangled substance, almost like seaweed wrapped around it.  “The XBT wire,” one of the scientists realized from the midst of her fascinated horror.
            The tentacle hovered for another movement before swooping down with surprising swiftness.  The two scientists were neatly plucked from the ship in the blink of an eye.  With a clatter, the radio fell to the deck.  They were held above the water for a long moment, crushed together so tightly they couldn’t speak and could barely draw breath.  Then, slowly, the tentacle disappeared beneath the smoothly rolling waves.

            Two hundred and sixty-seven shots until the next XBT.

-by Tanya Blacic aboard the R/V Langseth (with a wink to H. P. Lovecraft)