The Unicorn ran deep, ran smooth, gliding with the ease of an eagle on wing. But no hunter this; she was a ship of peace, the pride of the National Undersea Exploration Team, NUSET, pelagic counterpart of NASA, and the one, soon after the turn of the second millennium, to garner more of the government funding. The disaster at the space station, with seven astronauts dead, a shuttle and the multibillion dollar station lost, had curtailed NASA's budget tremendously and dampened the nation's taste for space exploration.
But scientists had found it easier to sell the public on exploration of the seas, the last great unexplored expanse on the planet. Particularly after yet another disastrous El Niño year, with the warm Pacific water brewing a long series of disastrous storms sweeping across the continental United States; public opinion rang out favorably for the fledgling NUSET.
And the Unicorn was the result. Every member of NUSET looked upon her with satisfaction and deep respect, for this submarine was the epitome of technological achievement. More than that, in accordance with the legend of her mythical namesake, the Unicorn had become a symbol of hope for the future of mankind amidst the constant threat of technological annihilation. For NUSET was an organization openly and honestly dedicated to the peaceful application of science. Any nation, friend or foe, could, for a modest fee, sign on to share in the wealth of information the project meant to collect. Any nation. And that, more than anything else, was the true victory of the Unicorn.
More than five miles of water now separated this splendid example of the new generation of submarine from the sunlit surface. All was dark here and quiet, save the gentle hum of the ship's engines and the ping-poc of the hull-insulator hydraulic system beating back the tremendous ocean pressure. Powerful searchlights cut a swath of illumination through the lightless waters as this lone sphere of civilization prowled the Atlantic's depths.
On the surface she had bobbed nervously about, each swell threatening to spin her over, but in this watery environ, she swam swiftly and effortlessly. Here she was made to be at home, graceful and swift, and yet for all of her detailed and near-perfect designs, here she remained a stranger.
Morning sparkled in bright reflections on the glassy surface, but this depth knew only night. So began the Unicorn's thirty-second day out of Woods Hole, her first without a dawn. Down she had gone. Down from the curious Russian trawler; from the humming propellor of a private plane--suspected of being a spy plane out from Cuba; from the beating of the Navy helicopter's gigantic blades. Down from the clamor of a mechanical world, deeper than any hint of the sun could reach, deeper even than the fish dared swim.
Jeff DelGiudice lay back on a weight-lifting bench and clasped the metal bar. "Five miles up and a thousand across," he mumbled, his thoughts inevitably drifting back to Woods Hole and Cape Cod and the woman he had left behind. Again, as always, he found himself examining his relationship with Debby, trying to find some answers to his unresolved emotions. He cared for her--deeply--and he could admit that to himself openly. Yet, though he was afraid to admit it, their love wasn't the passionate desire that he had fantasized about. That special spark, the tingling excitement that brightened even the blackest moods, simply wasn't there. Ever the resigned pragmatist, though, Del wasn't sure it could be there. He and Debby were as content as they could be, he supposed; for the realities of his world, the constant little pressures and petty headaches, had dulled his ability to hope. In truth, Del doubted the existence of ideal romantic love. That was the substance of a poet's pen, not the reality of the world.
And yet, despite that pragmatic contentment, again he had run away.
But even this escape was a lie, and little protection from the profound sadness within the man. He had never learned the joy of existence, the simple pleasures of perception and experience; and that, more than Debby, was his true frustration. Instinctively Del perceived an emptiness, a void within himself that craved fulfillment, but his materialistic and fiercely competitive world gave him no comfort.
"Lift, lift," Del repeated over and over. No good. Every time the ping-poc of the hydraulic system sounded, his concentration broke and he remembered Debby and those haunting questions. He slipped his hands from the bar in frustration.
On the forward bridge, navigator Billy Shank's brown eyes intently studied his instruments. "Any minute now, Captain," he said, his voice edged with excitement.
"Put the signal from the screen to the rest of the monitors on the ship," said Captain Mitchell, a giant, scowling man. His voice and visage held rock steady, but the simmering glow in his eyes betrayed his calm facade.
The alarm blasted just as Del finally managed to start his lift. The weights crashed back to the rack and Del scrambled across the room, his mind whirling. He charged into the hall, colliding with a crewman. His panic changed to embarrassment when he saw the cooler of beer.
"Carry on," Del said, waving his hand impatiently, as if he had known all along.
"Look at those legs!" came a voice from behind, that of Ray Corbin, the Unicorn's second in command.
"Ray," Del replied, watching the easy saunter of his approaching friend, the one man Mitchell had personally requested for the crew.
The irony of that fact was never lost on Del, for Mitchell and Corbin were far from alike. Intensity, Mitchell's trademark, was certainly not a prominent trait of Ray Corbin--the crew had even tagged the man with the nickname of Lay-back Ray. Still, everyone on the crew understood Mitchell's choice. A quiet, unassuming first officer virtually guaranteed the dominating captain uncontested control.
Or did it? Del often wondered. Truly Ray Corbin would not openly oppose Mitchell; dogfighting wasn't a part of his makeup. But Corbin was an officer sympathetic to the needs of the people around him, and he realized the pressures that a tyrant like Mitchell could exert on a crew. Del thought of him as the Unicorn's Mr. Roberts, playing around the hard edges of Jimmy Cagney. And Del's role in this movie script? He knew it all too well, knew why Ray Corbin had pulled quite a few strings to get him into the project. Corbin needed a foil for Mitchell's dominance, a release valve for the inevitable tension, and he found it in a man recommended by an old skipper of his. Corbin's secret weapon was Jeff DelGiudice, the Ensign Pulver to Corbin's Mr. Roberts.
"You going up front?" Corbin asked.
"You think I'd miss this?" Del replied. "Probably the only excitement we see on this tub for the next eight months."
"You want excitement?" Corbin remarked, smiling widely. "Wait until Mitchell sees his junior officer in gym shorts on the bridge."
Del understood that smile well, for he, too, could easily picture the scene on the bridge, the captain's face burning bright with rage.
"But you do have cute legs," Ray Corbin finished.
"He won't mind just this once," Del said unconvincingly. "Besides, they're Navy issue."
"The legs?" Corbin quipped, heading down the corridor.
Both of them were handed a plastic cup of beer when they entered the control room. Most of the staff and several crewmen were there, all holding foam-tipped cups and staring intently at the viewing screen. Mitchell sat straight-backed in his chair, a microphone buried in one of his huge paws and beer surrounded by the other.
"Refrigerator with a head," Del mumbled when he viewed the square-bodied captain. Mitchell gave his two officers a quick glance, but immediately returned his attention to the screen.
Del breathed easier that his outfit had apparently gone unnoticed.
Suddenly the screen brightened as the searchlight reflected back off the ocean floor. Buried for centuries untold under an inconceivable tonnage of water, the pressed stretch of mud and rock offered little artistic inspiration, but to the men of the Unicorn the view proved grand indeed.
Mitchell cracked a rare smile as he clicked on the com. "The deepest spot in the Atlantic, gentlemen," he said, lifting his glass of Old Milwaukee beer in a toast. "The floor of the Milwaukee Deep."
A tiny sip later, Mitchell's perpetual scowl returned. "She's all yours, Mr. Corbin," he said as he headed for the door. "And get rid of the beer. All of it."
Corbin shrugged impotently to the disappointed crew and motioned for one of the seamen to collect the drinks.
Del was as thrilled as anyone aboard to finally realize the goal of their months of preparation, but a five-second toast and a sip of beer wasn't exactly his idea of a celebration. "Big deal," he grumbled, errantly believing the captain to be out of earshot.
The room hushed instantly when Mitchell's crew-cut head popped back in the door, the burly captain eyeing Del for a long, long while.
"Mr. DelGiudice," he began, his voice teasingly calm. "Since you found this celebration inadequate, you're invited to join me in my quarters in ten minutes for a private party." His grin became an ugly grimace. "In uniform!"
Del just sighed helplessly as Corbin strolled over to pat him on the shoulder. "Maybe he didn't like your legs."
Billy Shank bit his lip and tried hard not to laugh.
Two uneventful days passed as the Unicorn crawled along the floor of the Atlantic. Forty-eight hours of prowling showed nothing but rocky abutments and flat bottoms, captured in relentless progression on the ship's monitor, making Del feel like a cartoon character running past the same background scenery again and again. He was on the bridge most of the time, pulling extra duty at the personal request of Captain Mitchell.
Good behavior reward, he supposed.
Three others, Seamen Jonson, Camarillo, and Billy Shank, worked with him, but they went about their duties with disciplined efficiency and did little to relieve the boredom on this long and particularly uneventful shift.
Finally, mercifully, a voice dispelled the solitude.
"Unbelievable," Billy Shank muttered. "Come see this."
But even as Del rose from his chair, a loud peal blasted out of Camarillo's sonic equipment and spun the others on their heels in surprise.
His visage locked in a contortion of shock and terror, Camarillo could not answer their questioning stares. Unblinking, he toppled facedown to the floor, not even extending his arms to break the fall.
The three men scrambled to him. "Back to your station!" Del told Billy. "And full stop! Get the captain and Doc!"
Del rolled Camarillo's body over, his stare answered by dull unseeing orbs. He removed the headphones and found the speaker cloth torn wide and wet from the blood that still trickled out of Camarillo's ears. He and Jonson went to work immediately, Jonson rhythmically pushing on Camarillo's chest, Del trying to breathe life into the man.
A moment later Ray Corbin and Doc Brady rushed in, followed closely by Mitchell and Martin Reinheiser, the civilian physicist who had earned the dubious distinction of becoming Mitchell's right-hand man. They ran to DelGiudice, now working furiously on the body.
"I've got him," Doc Brady told Del.
"He's dead," Del whispered as he rose. He felt his own pulse pounding as he watched helplessly.
"What happened?" Mitchell demanded.
From across the room, Billy Shank answered. "The indicators on my panel started jumping beyond the range of the gauges, and these gauges extend well beyond the limits of anything we ever expected to measure. I've never seen anything like it. And then there was a loud noise and Camarillo just fell over."
Mitchell glared at Del, who couldn't meet his accusing gaze, too vulnerable to argue with the captain this time. Though Del wasn't at fault, the fact remained that he had been in command at the time.
Secure in his victory as Del's head dropped, Mitchell turned to Reinheiser. "What could it be?"
Reinheiser snorted at the absurd request. "I believe I should examine the data before I make any guesses.
Doc Brady shook his head and closed Camarillo's eyes.
A dead crewman. Mitchell fumed at the thought, at the implications to his record. "Put the ship on alert!" he roared. "And get me a damage report!" He rushed over to the security of his command seat, all the more angry at the lack of focus for his ire.
Within moments the alarms sounded and the crew scrambled, but even the commotion could not ease Mitchell's impatience.
"The rest of the ship reports no damage or casualties, sir," Jonson called out.
Mitchell glanced at Del.
"Just one speaker," the junior officer explained. "It'll still work."
"Only minor damage here, too," Billy Shank called.
Martin Reinheiser, at a terminal to the side of the room, overlapped files with a gridded reference chart. "I believe the disturbance came from right about here," he said, moving his mouse pointer to a spot on the grid and giving a click so the indicated area expanded to fill the screen. "About a quarter mile dead ahead."
"Get us there, but keep it slow," Mitchell snapped at Billy. "I want to know what killed my crewman."
Del eyed the viewing screen, now perceiving the beacon of the searchlight as an unwelcome invader of this secret and suddenly hostile darkness. We're heading right into something that killed Camarillo from a quarter mile away, he thought, and he was not the only one in the room troubled by that fact.
Billy Shank's indicator needles flickered in warning.
"Captain ..." Billy began, but his voice trailed off when he noticed the astounded expressions on the faces around him. He looked to the screen and, following a waving command from Mitchell, brought the sub to a halt.
Blackness. The searchlight knifed down and abruptly disappeared. It didn't reflect back; it simply stopped.
"What is it?" Mitchell asked.
"A cavern?" Reinheiser questioned rhetorically, certainly not expecting answers from the men around him.
"My indicators are dancing again," Billy remarked loudly, but they seemed not to notice him.
"We have to get a closer look," Reinheiser declared, unconsciously leaning toward the screen.
"Move us in," Mitchell ordered flatly.
"But, sir," Billy replied, "my instruments aren't functional. I'll have to guide us manually."
"Take it nice and slow then," Mitchell said. "DelGiudice, have you got that speaker fixed yet?"
"Get us a replacement for Camarillo."
"I can take it," Del offered, thinking his act of bravery might earn him some grudging respect from Mitchell. It didn't. Gingerly, suddenly not so sure of his offer, he slid the headphones over his head.
The sub inched downward. Still the light could not penetrate the void before them. The sonic equipment issued its signals out from the sub, but they, too, were absorbed into the blackness, never to return.
"We must be within twenty feet," Billy said nervously. "I don't know how much closer I can get."
"Stop her, then," Mitchell said. Then to Del, "Have you got anything?"
"Nothing," Del replied. "The equipment seems to be working, but I'm not getting any signals at all."
"Damn!" Mitchell growled under his breath.
"We should back off and study the situation," Ray Corbin suggested. "We don't know what we're up against."
"It would seem prudent," Reinheiser agreed, realizing the futility of a visual examination without supporting information from their instruments. He clicked away at the computer as he spoke, but that system wasn't receiving enough information from the exterior sensors to offer back any answers.
Mitchell closed his eyes and rubbed his hands over his face. "Take us up a hundred feet."
Del's sigh of relief was audible.
"Mr. Corbin," Mitchell continued, "have everything inspected and bring me a complete status report as soon as possible." He turned to Reinheiser. "I'd like your evaluation the minute you get a chance to study all of the data."
And so the Unicorn hovered in the eternal gloom, a mere forty yards above the unexplained void. On the surface, a mighty electrical storm vented its fury in spasms of untempered violence, but the men of the Unicorn couldn't know that.
The ship came off alert before an hour had passed. Del found himself in command of the helm again as Mitchell and Corbin held a conference with the scientists. Most of the crew went to their barracks, trading rumors and trying to get what they figured might be their last rest for quite a while.
"These indicators are acting strange again," Billy said to Del a short time later, using the informal tone that marked their friendship. As the only black man on the Unicorn, Billy's own hesitance prevented him from having many friends on board. He had heard the quiet references to "NUSET's token black," an insidious thought that often crept into the back of his own mind. Del knew better, though, and his sincerity toward Billy had proven a great comfort to the man.
"It acts like there's something going on just above us," Billy explained as Del approached. The needles jumped and a blip appeared on the tracking grid for just a second, then was gone. "See? There it goes again!"
"Can we get a look above?"
"We can try." Billy clicked on the camera icon, then dragged the mouse to the indicated point on the grid. The forward viewing screen darkened as its camera turned away from the illumination of the forward searchlight.
"That should be about right," Billy said, moving the pointer to another icon, one for the floodlights. "Now, if I can get some light up there ..." As he began the drag, a bright arc cut a blinding line across the forward screen. Seaman McKinney, working the sonic booth, cried out and flung the crackling headphones to the floor. The screen flashed again.
"Jesus, it looks like a thunderstorm!" Jonson cried.
"Sounds like one, too," McKinney added, rubbing his ear.
"Yeah, but underwater?" Billy questioned. He looked blankly at Del. "I think you'd better get the captain."
But before Del could move, the lights, the screen, even the hum of the reactor, shut down. Dread drifted in with the silence and blackness, inundating all aboard in the knowledge that they were utterly helpless, freezing them with the certainty that something terrible was about to happen.
Then the storm hit.
It struck amidship, by the crew's quarters, attacking with a raw power that mocked the sophistication of the Unicorn. Steel beams and hydraulics that had held back the pressure of thirty thousand feet of water bent like rubber in the face of its strength. Bolt after bolt of lightning blasted against the sub, scorching and searing her sides. Currents wild with might wrenched mercilessly at the hull, tearing apart metal and splitting welded seams with unrelenting fury.
And through the holes, death streamed in, oblivious to the screams and pleas of the doomed crew.
Battered, but still conscious, Del clung desperately to the bolted chair. His mind spun with the turnings of the sub, whirling around then over, again and again. His terror heightened as he sensed that they were falling, hurtling uncontrollably toward the ocean floor, into the maw of the perverse blackness that had defied the intrusions of light or sound. Del tightened his hand on the arm of the chair, its tangible material his only grip on reality. Metal groaned in protest of the wrenching impact as the sub pummeled into and then through the black barrier.
And DelGiudice knew no more.