2013 Totem Head Story Contest Finalist.
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2013 Contest Finalist

Written By:   Sydney Kohl, 12 years old, Lincoln, Nebraska.

So there I was, feverishly supervising the Phorcys through the Pontus’s vast assortment of monitoring devices when the walkie-talkie abruptly fell silent. All signals I’d previously been receiving from the Phorcys unexpectedly ceased; its coordinates, condition, and my correspondence with the small sub’s pilot all cut short.

"Chance? Do you copy?" I asked repeatedly until I was certain he could no longer hear me. How can this be happening? Phorcys, its support ship, Pontus, and all of the crewmembers endured literally hundreds of drills and safety-checks to ensure a communications failure like this would never occur. If everything is compromised up here, what’s going on below the ocean? Without a functioning tracking device, I have no way of knowing Phorcys and its crew’s current location. Phorcys only has a scant amount of time before its oxygen supply is depleted entirely, and if they still haven’t been found before then…

Dr. Angela Wilson sighed, turning from the porthole as Chance prudently raised the submersible. A glance towards Phorcys’s glowing monitor confirmed the team’s depth at about 320 feet above the seafloor. It also verified that, unfortunately, their small crew of three had less than two more hours to spare below the ocean’s surface. Wilson, with the assistance of Chance, the pilot, and the experienced biologist, Dr. McCabe, already set her sediment traps; the esteemed chemist’s work was done. She eagerly looked forward to analyzing the particles the traps gathered on a later date. For now, though, she gazed absentmindedly around the sub’s cramped interior. McCabe currently pressed his face intently to a Plexiglas porthole, searching attentively for signs of life. No one, not the chemist, pilot, nor the biologist, had seen as many creatures as they hoped, only occasionally catching a glimpse of the rare octopus or ctenophore. In order to make this dive a success, they desperately needed to find something extraordinary.

They worked in silence for what seems like hours until McCabe let out a surprised yelp.

"Wilson, take a look at this!" McCabe exclaimed, waving her over with a hand. She walked curiously over to where he gestured, a single stride covering the short distance between their stations. Wilson squeezed next to the biologist, eyes widening behind rectangular spectacles as she made out the strange animal drifting passed the Phorcys. It appeared and operated similarly to a trash bag or dark fabric cloak, undulating as its notably large form drifted near the sub. As the creature drew closer, Wilson was able to distinguish muscle contractions rippling through the beast’s body.

"What is that?" Wilson breathed.

"I have absolutely no idea," replied the biologist, sounding just as amazed. Both scientists were completely and utterly captivated by this fascinating and unusual sight. McCabe hurriedly jotted his observations into a spiral notebook, whilst Wilson captured photo after photo.

It was at that moment when the lights suddenly went out.

"Chance, what’s going on?" Wilson’s panicked voice filled the chasm of silence previously occupied by the hum of electricity.

"I… I don’t know," responded Chance, who could be heard frantically flicking the control switches. "It’s like everything just stopped functioning. Lights, motors, controls, communication with Pontus…everything."

"Even the air filter?" asked McCabe, his normally tan skin quickly taking an alarming pallor.

Chance swallowed, uttering one word that ensured their fate, "Yes."

There was no conceivable way to survive. With air and communication shut down, they would most likely die, unfound, beneath the waves.

"How much time would you say we have? To survive, I mean," Angela was almost afraid to ask.

"Exactly? I’m not sure," Chance spoke slowly. "Probably around 30 minutes, max. Whatever it is, it’s not enough. Our air will be long gone by the time Pontus relocates the sub." The pilot appeared strangely calm and reserved, sitting stoically, voice unfaltering.

The Phorcys was now noticeably descending. Wilson stood up and began pacing agitatedly around their small work area. She drummed her fingertips nervously on Chance’s control desk, only then noticing a sticky stain that spread over the entire control and communications panel.

"Chance," Angela spoke in a dangerously controlled whisper, "did you spill soda on the control board?"

"It was an accident! Something as minor as a spilt drink shouldn’t have caused such a large dysfunction in the Phorcys’s internal operations!"

"YOU IDIOT!" McCabe raged, a large vein pulsating in his neck. "YOU’VE KILLED US! YOU’VE KILLED US!"

He rose to his full height, a formidable six foot three, and flew at the terrified pilot.

"Stop!" Angela screamed, futilely struggling to pull McCabe off a bloodied Chance. "Stop, you’re going to kill him!"

Ignoring her, he continued to pound Chance relentlessly. The chemist frantically searched for anything, anything that could save her friend. Her bright blue eyes settled on the dysfunctional chrome laptop lying on the desk of Chance’s abandoned station. Grabbing desperately for the monitor, Wilson closed her eyes and swung it at McCabe’s head. McCabe’s eyes widened momentarily, and then fell shut, his limp body thudding onto the steel floor. The chemist froze, not realizing she had dropped the monitor until it landed beside Chance’s twitching form. Chance’s nose was clearly broken in several places, bright red blood dripping down his face and spotting the ground. McCabe lay a few feet away, the same crimson blood branding his knuckles. Chance, at least, was still breathing, but would remain unconscious for a long time. For better or worse was still undetermined.

30 minutes until oxygen depletion:

It took several minutes for the chemist to bring herself to look at McCabe. She couldn’t bear to face what she had done. When she finally forced her gaze onto his body, she immediately threw up. His skull concaved horrifically and it was clear the biologist was dead. Wilson, unable to control her shaking shoulders, sank to the floor and sobbed.

20 minutes until oxygen depletion:

Dr. Angela Wilson knew she was going to die. It didn’t matter that her husband would return from Afghanistan in just two months, or that that night her six-year-old daughter would wonder why she never came home from work. It didn’t matter that millions upon millions of dollars and hundreds of hours of hard work would all be for naught. Nothing at all mattered, really. She would breathe her last, and the world would go on. Dr. Angela Wilson knew she was going to die. She also knew that she no longer cared.

15 minutes until oxygen depletion:

A strange silence had latched itself to the Phorcys, and it wasn’t letting go. Wilson had since moved from tears to absolute resignation; why weep when nothing is significant enough to weep about? Her eyes stared vacantly out of the porthole, into the surrounding blackness. Every so often one of the strange cloak creatures lazily passed by the porthole.

A sudden groan of metal resonated throughout the sub, the entire vehicle shuddering as Phorcys collided with the ocean floor. Good, Wilson thought. Not long to wait now.

5 minutes until oxygen depletion:

Inside the Phorcys, everything was still. Wilson sat stone-faced in her chair, the two men lying at opposite ends of the somber vehicle, the underwater morgue. Already it was noticeably harder for the chemist to force oxygen into her lungs, now constrained to wheezing for air. Despite that - and being under thousands of pounds of atmospheric pressure - Wilson felt perfectly calm. Not at peace, but calm. Until Chance’s right sneaker began to spasm, a weak moan escaping his lips.

He should not be condemned to an end like this, slowly suffocated until all of the life drains out of him like fine grains of sand in a fractured hourglass.

Almost robotically, Wilson stepped forward and kneeled at Chance’s side, taking his face in her hands. Deliberately, she tipped back his broad chin, pinched his nostrils closed, and covered his mouth with a trembling pale hand. Chance’s eyes flew open, pupils dilated like those of a frightened mare. His hands weakly struggled to free himself from the crazed Wilson’s vice-like grip, but soon dropped limply back to his sides. All Chance could do was watch as Wilson’s emotionless face stared him down, her hands squeezing tighter and tighter. It takes took only moments for the light to leave Chance’s eyes, now dim, empty, and unseeing. Wilson’s steady clamp faltered as she released her hold, the pilot’s head slumping to the floor. The chemist turned away, unable to handle Chance’s clouded gaze, windows to a soul no longer present.

Gasping, Angela realized that almost no air remained in the sub. Spots and squiggles hijacked her vision. Clutching her throat, Wilson recognized that she was curled in a fetal position atop her desk, facing the porthole; she didn’t know how she got there. What appeared to be dozens of the baleful, mantle-esque entities were rapidly converging around the sub. Now, Wilson realized they looked an awful lot like shrouds.

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