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Ocean Wolves by Theresa Beachman (1)

One

Date: January 26th, 2035

Location: Rosemary Bank Seamount,

North Atlantic Ocean

Depth: 7447 feet below sea level

Duration of Mission: 6 months

Mission Time Remaining: Five days

Dr. Becca Johnson stared out Dora’s viewport at endless ocean and worked her jaw as Whitney Houston’s voice blasted through her headset.

“I still can’t see Shaw or Redd. Where the hell are they?”

Small, furry-looking yeti crabs scuttled away from the submersible’s headlights, their feelers waving in the soupy water. To her left, the base of the extinct volcano, Rosemary Bank Seamount, was clearly picked out by Dora’s powerful floods as her co-pilot, Engineer Emily Vincent, piloted the tiny submarine toward the mining site. The seamount rose steeply from the sea floor, stretching upward from a base over seven thousand feet below the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean. To her right, the abyssal plain of the ocean floor stretched out in endless gray sludge, the horizon only broken by the shadowy form of an ancient Geo-lab, the original research base established here over twenty years ago.

Now the decrepit Geo-lab reminded Becca of how she felt. Exhausted and worn out. Six months ago, excitement at the sight of the ancient volcano had burned through her blood. At the beginning of their research rotation, her voice had been perky and upbeat. But the darkness, freezing water, and unsuccessful exploration for Neodymium deposits had bled the enthusiasm from her body. She suppressed a sigh. All she wanted was to go home, but home for the next few days was still the Ceto deep-sea habitat where she’d been living with her team for the past six months.

“We’re close,” Em reported, checking her sonar. “Up ahead in the northern quadrant.” Petite and of Korean descent, with unruly hair rammed under a baseball cap, Em was smart and not afraid to call it as she saw it. Becca liked her a lot. There was too much groveling within the research community for her liking.

Becca gripped the comms control with tight fingers. “Johnson to Redd. Copy, please.”

She released the button and waited, but instead of the empty hiss of gray static, her ears continued to throb with Whitney Houston.

Did he do it on purpose? Did he know how much she hated Whitney blinking Houston? “Redd. This is Johnson. Copy, please.”

Nothing. She rubbed her eyes with the heel of her hand. They were gritty and stinging from the extended dive in Dora, and Chase Redd’s refusal to answer her call beyond a bad eighties album on repeat from his headset was only adding to her general discomfort. As their senior science officer, Redd was the most sensitive to the sting of empty hands after six months on location. He was only a few years from retirement, and it was clear he was painfully aware of that fact—from the way he dyed his hair to disguise the gray, to the time he spent poring over his computer, and his borderline obsessive devotion to the samples he hauled out of the seabed every day. Redd was a man on a mission and before he retired, he wanted a big find.

“Chase. I know you can hear me. We’re picking up the music from your comms unit. It’s after eighteen hundred. Time to wrap it up.” Becca gave up and sighed deeply.

She was the medical officer for this crew, and his behavior over the last few days was beginning to worry her. The relief sub due to arrive in five days with the changeover team couldn’t come soon enough.

Today, they’d been out here for over eight hours. Becca had seen enough gray rock and hairy crabs to last her a lifetime, especially when accompanied by Whitney Houston belting out ‘I Wanna Dance with Somebody.’

She checked Redd’s vitals again. His blood pressure was soaring, and his heart rate was faster than she liked.

She hit the comms switch, cutting off Whitney mid-warble. Em breathed a sigh of relief as Becca pressed the comms button to open the line to the second diver.

“Shaw. Johnson calling. Copy.”

“Found them.” Em pointed and slowed Dora, reaching above her head to flick a series of switches. The engine hum receded to a barely perceptible whisper within the cramped space of the cockpit. Emily tilted the steering yoke, angling Dora in a neat maneuver around the two bulky figures standing on the sea floor.

One of the figures turned, his movements slow and restricted by the hard diving suit he wore, constructed from reinforced steel and titanium and designed to withstand the thousands of tons of water bearing down on him. He raised a hand in greeting, his voice crackling on the comms.

“Ladies, glad you could join us.”

Becca scanned the geologist’s vitals. Ticking along, but his blood sugars were low. He was exhausted. Time to bring him in. Heavyset with a thick head of gray hair and neatly trimmed goatee, Owen Shaw was the peacemaker of the group, smoothing the choppy waters between the fragile egos of the other scientists. But even he was due a break.

Next to him, Redd remained focused on the task at hand, carefully removing core samples from the excavation site. As Dora came to a halt, Redd lifted the slender cylinders from the drill site with tender care, disturbing clouds of fine sand and mud. Samples already collected lay behind him on cargo webbing in a neat row, ready to be retrieved by the mechanical arm at Dora’s rear.

“Shaw, we have you on visual,” Em replied. “Dora’s ready for uplift when you are.”

Shaw tramped slowly across the bed of gray sand, his footprints leaving squiggled depressions in the silt. His breathing was harsh and rasping over the comms system. “Copy that, Em.”

Becca held down the comms button. “Any joy?” Their mission purpose was to locate Neodymium deposits to fuel Triton Core’s engines with clean magnetic power, but Becca was rapidly moving beyond caring.

Shaw made a wavering motion with his hand in the direction of Dora’s viewport. “Redd’s been taking the samples from the extended dig site. Redd?”

Redd kept his back to his colleague as he lifted another cylinder.

Idiot. Becca made a mental note to add to Redd’s medical file. He was putting the others at risk with his non-compliant behavior.

Shaw lifted his hands in a ‘whatever’ gesture. “I haven’t seen the results from yesterday’s dig. Redd assures me it’s all in hand.”

“I just bet he does,” Em muttered.

“We don’t have the results from yesterday?” Becca frowned. Triton policy stipulated daily updates on their coring status. At the very least, Redd should be sharing his results with his teammates.

Redd’s acerbic voice lanced through the comms system. “No need to worry, Dr. Johnson. Everything’s in order.”

“Good to know you’re listening, Redd.” Em clicked off her comms button. “Seriously, could he be more condescending?”

Becca frowned. Something about Redd’s tone bothered her. She couldn’t place it, but his usual belligerence was definitely cranked up. “We’re all frayed around the edges. We’ve been working twelve-hour days non-stop for the past three weeks.”

Em snorted. “You see too much good in people, Becca. Redd’s an ass.” She switched her comms back on. “Redd?”

Gray static buzzed. But no Whitney. Thank God.

Becca leaned forward, tapping Dora’s med console with her pencil in agitation. “Shaw, tell Redd we’re finished for the day. I want you both back on Dora. Let’s go home.”

Em grabbed the comms stick. “Redd. Start packing up. Some of us would like a shower and something to eat other than a recycled sandwich that tastes like it was made when your musical tastes first evolved.”

Redd’s voice rolled over the intercom. “Fuck off.”

Em screwed up her nose and held her hand over her mic. “The only agenda in existence is Redd’s agenda.”

Becca suppressed a grimace as she replied. “We’d be happy to, Redd. But it’s the end of the shift and your vitals are skewing off the chart. As medical officer, I’m ordering you to commence loading.”

“Not until I’m finished with sample collection.” Redd’s tone was caustic even over the radio.

Em rolled her eyes.

“Commence loading now, Redd,” Becca snapped. “We can collect the remaining samples tomorrow. They’re not going anywhere.”

Something clicked loudly then Whitney Houston cut through Becca’s headset once more. She swore as she wrenched her earphones off and ran a hand through her hair in frustration.

Em laid a cool hand on hers. “He can’t stay out there much longer.” She pointed at the data streaming from his hard suit. “His tanks are nearly empty. It’s a waiting game.”

Becca clamped her lips together. Em was right. Eventually, Redd would run out of air.

Em squeezed Becca’s fingers and sat back in her seat. “Betts has a secret supply of gin she was going to crack open tonight if you’re interested?” she said, referring to Betty Soh, their marine biologist. “All work and no play makes Dr. Johnson very boring. Need to get your social skills back up to speed. We’ll be home soon.”

Becca shook her head. “I don’t think so, but thanks for the offer. I have paperwork to finalize. Everyone’s medical data needs to be updated and collated for audit. I’m behind, and I want everything in order before we finish our rotation.”

Em smiled. “Well, the offer stands. Or maybe you’re saving yourself for topside?”

“Chance would be a fine thing,” Becca said. If anything, her life above the waves was even more desolate than the one below. At least working down on the seabed in forced proximity meant she had to be social, speak to people, and interact. Topside? When she wasn’t at work, she was asleep. It had been that way for a long time. Too long, if she was honest with herself.

Em stretched her hands above her head and eased from side to side, the joints in her shoulders audibly popping. “So when did you last have a date, Dr. Johnson?”

Becca waved a dismissive hand. “I’ve told you before. I keep work and romance separate.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t talk about them,” Em said, tracking Shaw as he made his way to the rear of the Dora.

His voice rattled over the comms. “Mechanical arm operational. Gonna get these babies loaded.” Vibrations shuddered through Dora’s hull as the arm powered up and swung toward the core samples.

Becca pursed her lips. Just thinking about relationships made her stomach knot. Every man she’d dated in the past had turned out to be a colossal mistake. It wasn’t their fault. They’d been nice, mostly. Intelligent, kind, self-supporting, and treated her well. But that was as far as it went, every single time. None of her relationships lasted longer than a few months because she held them at arm’s length. They got too close, she blew them off and moved on, too scared to explain why. It was only on her loneliest days that she’d allow herself to acknowledge why they came up short.

Every damn one of them.

Midnight blue eyes under thick dark hair, a thin white scar running from the underside of his nose to the curve of his lip flashed through her mind unbidden. And the rest. The pain and the heartache that was forever linked to him.

Thoughts of Ethan and the accompanying sharp stab of grief made her chest ache. They’d married so young, rushing with the naiveté and hopefulness of youth when she found out she was pregnant. Unconsciously, she touched her stomach. The tracery of scars on her belly was hidden under her clothes but branded like fire on her memory. The accident. The loss of their baby. The recriminations and anger that had raged between them, tearing them apart.

She blinked away the memory. She’d moved on. Left the past behind. Made a life for herself, spending her time split between research and the university. It suited her. Deep in the ocean, she’d seen wondrous things other people had only dreamed of. There was no excuse for melancholy or regret.

“Where’s Redd gone?” she asked, focusing on the front viewport. She strained against her harness, checking the side viewport next. “Em?”

“There.” Em pointed. Redd was on the far edge of the dig site, facing them as he dragged a sample across the seabed toward the Dora.

“What the hell is he doing? That’s way beyond the marked dig boundaries.” Becca picked up her headset and raised the mic to her mouth, but before she spoke something large flickered on the far reach of Dora’s lights. A thick, elongated shape pulsing through the murky water like a snake.

Becca pointed. “Em, you see that?”

“Yes. Damn, it’s big.” Em squinted at the amorphous shape that shifted and turned on the boundary between light and dark.

Becca slipped her headphones back on. She spoke rapidly over the music. “Redd. There’s something sizing you up. Leave the loading. Get back to the Dora, now.

“Oh my God.” Em’s mouth fell open as the shadow powered into view. A broad flattened head rose above a muscular, eel-like body at least six feet long that cruised effortlessly through the water.

Becca gripped the comms harder as her pulse accelerated. “Redd. Leave the samples now. Redd, do you hear me?”

Em narrowed her eyes as she stared into the gloom. “What the hell is that?”

“Frilled shark.” Becca turned to Em. “But that doesn’t make any sense. You don’t normally find them below 3,000 feet.”

“Someone needs to tell the shark that. Shit.”

Redd finally began to pace toward the Dora, his heavy legs taking methodical steps across the seabed.

Shaw’s voice was strident on the comms. “Mother of God. Redd, get a move on.”

The animal’s head twisted and rocked from side to side, jaws splitting open above a ruff of gill slits interspersed with flashes of pink. “Redd, it’s a frilled shark. It shouldn’t be a threat, but…”

Redd grunted audibly as the shark lashed him, its dead eyes blank as it knocked him to his hands and knees with a leisurely swipe of its tail.

“Fuck this.” Em reached above her head, her hands a blur of motion as she powered the Dora back up. “Shaw, where are you?”

“At the rear. I have the mechanical arm…”

Becca spoke rapidly. “Shaw, disable the arm. We need to maneuver.”

“Negative,” Shaw replied.

The mechanical arm shot past the front viewport, slicing through the water toward the shark, which circled above Redd in a narrowing circuit. Its broad mouth yawned wide with multiple needle-sharp teeth.

The telescopic reach of the arm missed the rough gray flank, but the closeness triggered a reaction. The shark bucked, then following a snap of its powerful caudal fin, dived. Redd screamed through the headset as the deep-sea hunter lunged and barreled into him, flattening him in a cloud of silt and mud that obscured the attack.

The Dora shuddered as the mechanical arm retracted then swung again, pummeling the shark in the middle of its powerful body.

No.” Becca lunged forward in her seat. “Shaw, what the hell are you doing?”

The shark contracted around the arm, its tail whipping furiously, knocking the mechanism against Redd. Then it convulsed and, with a whip of its angular tail, disappeared into the abyss of dark ocean.

Sand spun in the water. Redd was just a cloudy lump on the ocean floor. Shaw staggered toward him, his arms outstretched as if that could bring him closer faster.

“Redd. Answer me, damn it, Redd.” Becca’s fingernails dug into the palms of her hands as only static roared through his comms. Come on. Answer, damn you.

Shaw fell to his knees beside the unmoving Redd. His voice came screaming through the comms. “Shit. Redd’s suit is breached.” His voice rose in pitch. “Redd, stay with me. Em, we’ve got a breach!”

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