Corporeal Passage: Chapter 9: Dark Passage
by Jeff RandKeith King sat next to Wilbur on the bridge of the submarine departing from Zero Node. In the next compartment, Mike Osvath and Steve Donohue stationed themselves with Keith's daughter Michaela and the pets, Jimmy, the capuchin monkey and Jo Jo, the dog. The others stayed behind in Zero Node for the uncertain future.
The departure went smoothly, as the sub disembarked from its mooring at the top of the Node some 20,000 feet below the surface of the ocean. Keith marveled at the sub's technology to handle the pressure at this depth. When he had first arrived at Zero Node, he focused on the technology of the Node itself and paid little attention to the feat of traveling under such extreme conditions. Then before departing on the submarine, he decided to do a little research using the vast knowledge depository available in Zero Node. Never had a fully functional submarine operated this deep in the ocean. In fact, it would be a significant accomplishment to withstand the pressure at a fraction of this depth. There were special devices for deep sea human exploration, but they were small compartments with extensive plating being sunk into the ocean. If he were to walk on the floor of the sea outside the submarine, the weight of the water above would be the equivalent of carrying a million pounds on his shoulders.
Operating the controls, Wilbur verified readings on the various gauges before fully engaging the engines. He confirmed the proper atmospheric conditions and a working communications link with Zero Node. Once in motion, the sub angled away from Zero Node on a long path to the surface of the ocean. Keith looked forward to seeing the sun and the sky.
The submarine had been on its journey fewer than five minutes when it suddenly took a violent roll followed by a sonic boom. The rush that followed caused it to begin a mad downward spiral, while continuously rolling on its horizontal axis. It was as if the submarine was being flushed down a giant drain. During the first flip, forcing the occupants to be upside down, Keith bashed his head on the ceiling and lost consciousness. The vessel was out of control heading for disaster at the bottom of the Pacific.
When Keith regained consciousness, he was in great pain lying on the floor. He opened his eyes to total darkness. Perhaps he was suffering a concussion and was now blind. He lifted himself to sit, experiencing pain in his neck and shoulders. He had been fortunate to avoid the broken bones of youth, now suspecting the worst. He called feebly to Wilbur but received no response.
Michaela thought she heard something in the bridge where her father was lying. She approached with her flashlight. "Dad. Are you awake?" she asked.
"I am, but in pain. Michaela, are you OK?"
"Wilbur and I are OK here with our pets," Michaela responded. "But Steve Donohue is unconscious, and Mr. Osvath is delirious."
"I am happy to see the light," said Keith. "What happened?"
"I better let Wilbur explain. But first we should get you comfortable," Michaela remarked, while giving Keith a pillow.
Wilbur approached Keith to describe the disaster, "We had just departed Zero Node on our slow ascent to the surface, when we were hit with the vortex. It was if we were being flushed down a huge drain in the ocean as we spiraled out of control. I was able to grab my chair before we flipped, but you weren't so lucky and crashed into the ceiling. We flipped several times before the sub came to a rest. At that point we were in total darkness. Every control and instrument was dead."
"Why aren't there any emergency lights?" asked Keith.
"K2, why would we need them? Nothing ever failed in Zero Node. The technology always worked."
Keith was able to stand and walk with pain. However, he was less certain about the two older passengers, Steve and Mike, who had been knocked around during the disaster. They were left to rest, while the three conscious passengers discussed their options.
"I am not sure I can do anything," said Wilbur.
"Can't we return to Zero Node?" asked Keith.
"How could we possibly find it? We have a better chance making it to the surface, except there is a big problem," responded Wilbur.
"In order to operate at such extreme depths, this submarine is not using ballast. Rather, it uses powered ascents and descents. Since we have no power, we cannot ascend. We'll stay here until we deplete our air supply."
"I am too young to die!" cried Michaela. "There must be some other way."
"Wilbur, I might not be an expert on the operation of a submarine," offered Keith. "But is there some way we could lose some weight?"
"We can't open the hatch to get rid of anything. We'll flood the compartment. Then we'll start to sink. But?"
"But what?" asked Keith.
"If we could get rid of something heavy on the outside of the sub then we would ascend," responded Wilbur. "Perhaps?"
"It is not like we can just remove one of the propellers. But the decking on the top of the submarine can be raised and lowered manually from inside. Perhaps we can raise it enough to release it."
"OK. Let's do it!" barked Keith. "Our choices are limited. We must get this submarine operational, or we die. I suggest that we proceed to the surface before we suffocate."
Thankfully, Michaela had the foresight to bring the flashlight enabling Wilbur to direct Keith to a cabinet in the bridge. Inside there were six volumes, which Wilbur indicated were the schematics for the vessel.
When Keith opened the first volume, he was greeted with the strange symbols he had seen in the control center in Zero Node. "What help are these, unless you can read these things?" he asked.
Wilbur responded, "I am sorry I cannot. I think Doug knew more about it but would not share much, especially with me. I recall Ron pressing Doug for more information to no avail. Ron did learn to recognize the numbers, which he shared with me. They are represented by ovals. For example, zero looks the same as you would use. The numeral one is an oval with a short horizontal line inside on the right."
"What about letters and words?"
"There are no letters in the same sense as in the Latin alphabet. The symbols using a vertical line as the base are the foundation of a phonetic linguistic system similar to Chinese, but much simpler as they use only straight lines. I know the first phoneme consists of an upside down 'L' pointing to the right is pronounced as 'ah' like the standard variation used with the letter 'A.' The system has a single phoneme assigned to every symbol, but I was never allowed to learn more."
Wilbur held the first volume, "Although we can't read these books, they are filled with diagrams, which can be useful. There are even page numbers, which I should mention that they use base sixteen. For example, the first volume ends with page number 180, which you would say should be 384."
Having a single flashlight delayed the process in examining the books to find some helpful information regarding the external decking. After four jiffies, Wilbur found the information and useful diagrams on Page 6F of the fourth volume.
Wilbur was able to locate a few tools before he and Keith climbed the ladder in the entrance passage. Wilbur showed Keith the mechanism for raising the platform on top of the submarine. Normally it would be done mechanically, but there were four wheels attached to shafts extending through the shell of the submarine which would allow for manual adjustments to each corner of the platform.
The process to raise the deck went slow, for it took dozens of turns on each wheel to raise it to the limit. Though he could not make sense of the value from the book, Keith reasoned that it rose at least three feet based upon the illustration of the threads running into the posts holding the railing around the deck. He recalled the railing to be above his waist when he first entered the sub several weeks ago.
When they were not able to raise the deck any further, Keith remarked that their effort had failed because it was still attached. Wilbur referenced a gear box attached to each shaft which prevented the shaft from going beyond its limit from either powered or manual efforts. It would be a matter of removing the critical gears.
When Wilbur shined the light next to one of the wheels, Keith remarked, "I see a plate, but don't see any bolts to remove it. In fact, I don't recall seeing any bolts or screws here or in Zero Node."
Wilbur offered some explanation, "K2, you may have discovered that the technology of Zero Node and this submarine is far advanced. Some of the artifacts that you found displayed in the Great Space of Zero Node have slotted screws and hexagonal bolts. However, such fasteners are not present here. Most items are fastened with triangular keys. I will use a standard triangular key wrench to remove the plating."
Keith marveled at how easily Wilbur removed the plating next to the wheels for controlling the external deck. Wilbur used the same wrenches to remove some gears. When the pair tried the wheels again, the wheels turned several times until they lost all tension. At this point, Wilbur remarked that the deck was free. If they turned two wheels to lower one side of the deck, it should create an angle where it would slide off the top of the submarine. When they tried to lower or raise the deck and felt no tension, they realized it was gone.
"Do you think we lost enough weight for the sub to rise?" asked Keith.
"I can't say for certain, but we should be moving upward at least through the hadalpelagic zone. When we left Zero Node, our vessel was set to maintain a stable depth without any powered assent or descent. Now that we have lost some weight, we will rise. I am just not certain how temperature and water density will affect us when we rise to the abyssopelagic zone," replied Wilbur.
"I guess it will be a matter of time. I just hope we don't run out of air before we reach the surface."
When Keith and Wilbur descended the ladder and entered the main compartment, they encountered Michaela sitting in the dark with the pets and the two invalids. "Now that you brought my light back, I would like some help moving these two to the bunks. Were you able to remove the decking?" she asked.
"Yes. We just don't know how long it will take to rise four miles to the surface," replied Keith hopefully.
Since there was no way to recharge the flashlight, it had to be used sparingly. Michaela had resumed control of this precious tool, and she proceeded to the galley to prepare a meal. Food supplies were plentiful but there was no way to cook anything. Fortunately, provisions were well sealed in reusable containers, and even the items requiring refrigeration were stored in a locker of exceptional thermal efficiency. She prepared a dinner of beans and raw fish, having overcome any of her own food allergies during many months of hardship.
After dinner, when she went to check on the invalids, she found that Steve was still unconscious, but Mike was now capable of interacting rationally. He was able to join the others for the remnants of dinner, assuring Michaela not to worry, as his periods of delirium were normal during traumatic experiences.
The four conscious passengers gathered around the single flashlight uncertain of their future. Wilbur took the lead trying to put the group at ease. He thanked Michaela for the meal and Keith for his work to decrease the weight of the submarine. "You may have noticed that our companions in Zero Node preferred the long days," he said. "But I could not stay awake for 150 jiffies as a regular thing and would have to sleep more often. I suggest we all find a spot to sleep. It will give us a chance to shut off the flashlight. It won't stay charged forever.
Keith awoke and stumbled in the dark to find his pee bucket, hoping not to miss the target. He recalled the difficult times he had doing this when locked in the lighthouse on Howland Island. When everyone was awake except Steve, they had to share the light as they pursued to repair the submarine and restore power. A second day ended with no success.
On the third day, Michaela went to check on Steve and found him conscious. After a momentary struggle to gain his balance, he was able to leave his bunk and join the others. When they explained their situation, he was dismayed at their lack of progress.
"So, we don't really have a plan other than hope," said Steve, addressing the others.
"We should be ascending to the surface slowly, hopefully before we run out of air," Wilbur responded.
"What then when the flashlight is out of juice?" asked Steve. "Michaela, I know you don't like the Caveman Dinner meal theme we used at Winter Camp. But we can learn from that experience where we had light from lamps we made by burning cooking oil. We should have enough oil to burn in a homemade lamp, and if we use it sparingly, we won't deplete too much oxygen."
Each of the five passengers now assumed a specific role. Keith and Wilbur used the flashlight in continuing their efforts to repair the vessel. Steve used his oil lamp in the same manner as Abe Lincoln did when he was learning to read by candlelight in his boyhood home in Indiana. In Steve's case he had the additional challenge of learning a whole new language constructed with unusual symbols. Yet he was determined to read the details of the schematics in order to repair the ship. Michaela and Mike attended to their living conditions and did most of their work in the dark. Mike was particularly adept at working without light, having extensive experience as a productive sleepwalker.
Four more days passed before the flashlight died. Steve still had cooking oil to burn but the air was getting stale. Headaches were becoming common. At that point, Steve made the difficult decision to discontinue learning to read the new language, suggesting that their continued mortality would be left to hope and prayer.
Days later, at least to his best belief, Keith laid down to sleep with the others. He had a severe headache and trouble breathing, suspecting that he would not wake again.
Keith realized that he had escaped death when he woke to see light coming from the passage to the hatch at the top of the submarine. Wilbur was standing in the doorway to the ladder leading to the bulkhead.