The following is another short story that I’ve written as part of the ongoing ‘Write with Chris and Millie’ writing prompt exercise. The purpose of the exercise is to give us both a chance to practise writing prompts and stories. The original prompt phrase or sentence is highlighted in bold.
This week, much like a ghoul slinking back to its subterranean home as the dawn breaks, I am once again returning to HP Lovecraft territory.
The clock ticked slowly, tauntingly. How long had they been locked in this staring contest? Laurence and Anna sat in the dimly lit cabin, watching the monitors in front of them. Their staring contest was with the ocean abyss below, and although the abyss did not have eyes, Laurence could not shake the feeling that it was staring back. Who would blink first; would the abyss reveal its secrets, or would they grow bored and give up their search?
“Hey!” said Anna sharply, clicking her fingers next to Laurence’s ear in a loud and annoying fashion. “You’ve glazed over again. Are you paying attention?”
Laurence bit back a retort. She was right, he’d been lost in his inner monologue and couldn’t have told Anna what had been on the screen in front of him for the past thirty seconds.
“You just worry about your camera,” said Laurence irritably, “I’m fine.” Anna let out a deep sigh – the breathing equivalent of a raised middle finger – but said nothing else. He could hear Becky the intern squirming uncomfortably on her chair behind them, but he didn’t look back at her.
Did the ‘cabin’ in ‘cabin fever’ refer to a ship’s cabin, or like an isolated wooden cabin high in the mountains? wondered Laurence. Cabin. Cabin. Cabin. Cab-in. Cab In. CABIN! Nope, that word had totally lost all meaning now. He heard Anna grinding her teeth next to him, and realised that he’d let his focus slip again. He blinked a couple of time and rubbed his cheeks with his palms as though he could rub away the stubble there and thus be restored to full wakefulness. The operations room was dimly lit, and the hum of equipment was like white noise in the background. He felt like he was fighting a losing battle with sleep.
“Becky,” said Laurence, swivelling on his chair to finally address the intern, “sorry, I know this is a bit rubbish, but could you get us all some coffees from the mess hall please?”
Laurence hated using interns to run menial errands – it didn’t seem fair when they were here to learn useful skills, not how everyone took their drinks – but right now he didn’t feel like he had a choice.
“No problem!” replied Becky, leaping up. Clearly the atmosphere in here was uncomfortable for everyone. “What sort of coffee?”
“Black Americano please,” he replied.
“Latté,” added Anna, not taking her eyes off her monitor. Laurence didn’t think that she had any strong feelings one way or the other about how the interns spent their time on board the ship.
“And don’t forget to get one for yourself,” added Laurence as Becky scurried out of the door.
Turning back to his monitor, Laurence was once again confronted by the view from camera 2 on the remote submersible that was diving down beneath them and into the North Sea. The miniature unmanned submarine was connected to their ship by a long cable that carried power and data, like the umbilical cord of a newly birthed sea creature. Specks of silt floated by as he watched the camera feed, each tiny particle of mud briefly illuminated by the searchlights before fading into the darkness once more.
“It’s like someone with terminal depression designed a screensaver,” muttered Laurence in exasperation. Anna gave an amused snort; that was funny, the noise seemed to say, but I’m still annoyed at you. You couldn’t spend as long as Laurence and Anna had in close quarters without getting to know a person so well that you understood every single tick, twitch and sigh their body made. After that, you either fell in love or became sick of the sight of each other. Laurence made a quiet amused snort of his own, wondering how things would have panned out if it had gone the other way.
“What’s funny?” asked Anna.
“Oh…nothing,” replied Laurence, his imagination swimming through unexplored depths of possibility. Not unlike their submersible.
The RRS Spring had been travelling the rolling grey waters of the North Sea for two weeks now, and not without purpose. A rare alignment of the sun and moon had brought about the reign of the king tide; the highest and lowest tide of the year. Mesolithic artefacts were dredged up from the bottom of the North Sea from time to time: bones, tools, things like that. Some bright spark had taken the opportunity presented by the low tide – and the lifting and stirring of silt that the dramatic change in water level could bring – to commission a survey of select areas of the sea bed. What that brain genius had not considered, thought Laurence bitterly, was that the stirring of the slit would mean there was a huge amount of silt actually suspended in the water! Right now the visibility of their remote submersible was reduced to only a few metres.
Nevertheless, a commission was a commission, and they had to make the best of this unique opportunity. Dogger Bank – the massive submerged sandbank that they were currently transversing – was being considered as a potential site for ‘Round 3’ of the UK’s offshore wind program. The comparatively shallow water made it ideal for wind turbine foundations. A consortium of Dutch, German and Danish developers had also expressed an interest in the site for a similar EU project. Whatever prehistoric artefacts were down there were about to be disturbed, one way or another.
“I still find it weird to think that this whole area of the North Sea was all above water eight thousand years ago,” muttered Laurence, more to himself to break the silence than to Anna. Doggerland was what the drowned land was called, named after Dogger Bank. What would the indigenous inhabitants have called it? Laurence wondered. His screen continued to show nothing but murky water.
“Yeah, a land bridge to the Low Countries and Europe,” replied Anna, still fixed on her monitor, “imagine how different history would have been if it had never flooded.” Laurence was genuinely surprised she had engaged with the conversation.
“Don’t forget though, it was only the lowest areas that flooded first; Dogger Bank itself remained an island for another thousand years after that until it was also eventually swallowed by the rising waters. We’re meant to be over the highest point of Dogger Bank right now…”
Anna trailed off into silence. Laurence let out a long sigh. Their submersible could be hovering a few metres above an endless carpet of Mesolithic artefacts and treasures and they wouldn’t have a damn clue in all this murk.
“Imagine being an inhabitant of Dogger Bank island as the waters closed in, year by year,” mused Laurence, breaking the silence again after a few moments, “what must they have thought as their world was swallowed by the waves?”
“They could have left on log boats,” suggested Anna.
“And gone where? Think about it, no other land in sight in living memory. For all you know, you’re the only people in the world,” replied Laurence, “would they have even thought to leave? Who could they have called on for help? Who would have answered…?”
Anna shuddered. “Don’t, you’re creeping me out.”
“Fine. Sorry. I’m just creating a little atmosphere,” laughed Laurence, “let’s talk about something normal. Fun fact, did you know that the strongest earthquake ever recorded in the UK was in 1931 and it was centred on Dogger Bank?”
“Huh, that is kind of interest-shit!”
Something grey loomed out of the silt on Anna’s monitor, something large and tilted at an angle like the leg of a massive bipedal creature that was preparing to pounce. Anna had good reflexes, Laurence had to give her that much. She reacted instantly, slamming the remote vehicle’s engines into full reverse. The submarine’s momentum haemorrhaged away until it merely collided with the mysterious object with a gentle bump. Laurence released a breath he hadn’t realised he’d been holding in.
“What the hell is that?” said Laurence. The object filled their monitors as the cameras struggled to refocus.
“I think…” said Anna as she gently guided the remote submarine backwards, “…I think it might be some sort of standing stone.”
The curtain of silt briefly parted before them, like a carnival magician teasing his audience with glimpses of wonders to come. Poking from the very top of Dogger Bank like rotten teeth from a broken jaw, rows of storm-grey menhirs projected haphazardly from the sand. Together they formed broken lines of stone radiating from a shadowed central point. Then the strange vista was gone, the murky veil descending once more.
“Ho-lee shit,” breathed Laurence. Suddenly he felt doubly guilty for sending Becky away to get coffee and causing her to miss this. Anna was already on the internal radio.
“Bridge, this is submarine operations,” said Anna, “we’ve found something Steve! Something big!” A few moments of silence passed. Anna and Laurence exchanged amazed glances, neither of them really finding the words to discuss what they had seen.
“Now would that be something physically big or a metaphorical ‘big’ discovery?” replied the Captain.
“Both…I think,” said Anna, “what are the chances of holding us steady?”
“Pretty good,” replied Steve, “we’ve only got light chop. The tide’s on its way back up now though, so don’t forget you’re going to lose a bit of range on the seabed.”
“Good point, thanks, keep us here as long as you can, operations out,” Anna was already switching to talk to someone else.
“Winch control, this is submarine operations,” said Anna, “Adrian, how much slack do we have on the remote tether cable?”
Laurence chewed the nail of his thumb and watched the monitor while Anna waited for a reply. The silty curtain remained in place. Clearly the ocean felt they had been tantalised enough.
“About half a klick,” drawled Adrian, “why, how much do you need?”
500 metres thought Laurence, if Anna’s planning to do what I think she is, that should be enough.
“Great, that’s plenty, thanks!” replied Anna.
“Anna don’t push it to the limit, it’s not good for-” began Adrian but Anna was already turning the radio off.
“Yeah yeah…,” she said, as she eased the submarine’s controls forward, steering it carefully around the standing stone.
“Are we aiming for the centre of the stones?” asked Laurence, staring directly at his screen. He wouldn’t have taken his eyes off the monitor to look at Anna now, even if she took all her clothes off.
“Yes, there seemed to be…something in the centre,” confirmed Anna, “but I’m not quite sure what.”
“I saw it too,” agree Laurence.
The dark menhirs loomed out of the murk on either side as Anna expertly piloted the remote submersible between them. Strange currents between the standing stones buffeted the submarine as though someone was trying to swat them away, but she kept their course true. The shaking of the submersible video feed was at odds with the gentle rolling motion of their ship high above, and Laurence was finally forced to look away from the monitor as the conflicting sensory information made his stomach churn.
At last the submarine reached the centre of the standing stones. There, hunched low like a gargantuan crustacean made of black stone, stood a half buried entrance to a passageway into the heart of the sandbank below. Anna paused at the controls, considering her next move. Laurence could read from her body language that she was considering piloting the submersible further still, down into the black unknown.
“Woah,” said Laurence, “I’m not sure it’s worth the risk. Remember how much the robotic submersible costs, and if you trash it then it’s coming out of your pay cheque!” Anna turned to regard him with annoyance.
“We’ve made the discovery,” he added quickly, hoping to pacify her, “our names will definitely be attached to it, but we don’t have to map every inch of it right now,”
“You heard Steve,” she said irritably, “the king tide is beginning to rise again. Who knows how much silt and crap will be dumped back on top of all this in a few hours? You can’t deny that this is a significant find, especially considering the age and number of stones! Come on, let’s take this chance to actually learn something of value about the people of Doggerland!”
Laurence ground his teeth for a few seconds while he thought. Technically Anna was his superior, so if the sub was totalled then it would be her responsibility. And he really did want to know what was down there.
“Ok, fine, you’re the boss,” said Laurence, turning back to the monitors and making a chopping forward motion with his hands.
The waters were calmer here away from the standing stones. Anna inched the submersible down towards the entrance, very slowly and very cautiously. For a horrible moment Laurence thought it wasn’t going to fit. He sucked his gut in and held his breath as though this would somehow help. But he needn’t have worried, as the remote submarine slipped silently through the entrance and was swallowed by the darkness.
Without even the meagre natural light filtering down through the silty water, they were entirely reliant on their submarine’s search lights. Anna and Laurence’s world view was reduced to two bright discs of illuminated stone. At first the stone was uniformly the colour of storm-wracked skies, but as their craft descended deeper they started to see flecks of colour on the walls.
“Anemones?” wondered Laurence out loud.
“I don’t think so…” replied Anna. Laurence glanced over at her, then back at his screen.
“JESUS!” he yelled, scooting back from the monitor as fast as he could. There, filling his monitor, was a bright red human handprint smeared across the rock.
Laurence took several deep breaths, trying to swallow his hammering heart back down into his chest. Beside him, Anna was crying tears of laughter.
“It’s a cave painting,” she chuckled, wiping away the tears, “it’s Mesolithic cave art! What, did you think there are ghosts down here leaving bloody handprints on the walls?”
“I…no, I…it just caught me off guard, that’s all,” said Laurence, his face flushing a similar shade of red to the hand print, “seeing something so human down in this alien world, it was just a bit jarring, that’s all.”
“‘Alien world’”, repeated Anna, rolling her eyes mockingly, “you’re talking about the sea bed. It’s only about 30 metres below us.”
Laurence said nothing and silently wheeled his chair back into position in front of the monitor. He really needed that black coffee right now. Anna finished drying her eyes, and, chuckling away to herself, piloted the submarine further into the cave. As the duel beams of the searchlights swept along opposite walls, they revealed a myriad of paintings. Stylised people and animals engaged in the dance of hunter and prey, the vibrant pigments in the paint all perfectly preserved by millennia entombed in airless silt. Laurence’s eyes flicked down to check the recording button was active on the software interface. It always was by default, but he still wanted to be certain. This find was turning from astounding to unbelievable. This made the cave paintings of Lascaux appear pretty crap by comparison, if he was honest.
As the submarine progressed along the corridor, the tone of the paintings changed. The animals went from bountiful to scarce, and ominous lapping waves began to feature around the edge of the art. Finally the corridor – which had been gently sloping down into the depths of the sand bank – opened out into a small room. On the opposite side lurked another stone portal, abyssal black and seemingly leading to a much steeper incline.
Anna drew the submarine to a halt, gently working the engines to move the submarine in a slow circle. There were no animals left in the cave paintings in this chamber, only people, rising water, and a sense of desperation. It amazed Laurence how much these primitive people had been able to communicate with their art. Their sense of terror was almost palpable as the art showed them constructing this temple on the highest peak of Dogger Bank island almost 7000 years ago.
“But a temple to what…?” Laurence wondered aloud.
“At a guess, ancestor worship,” replied Anna.
“What makes you say that?” asked Laurence, looking at the cave painting of the menhirs with the dark entrance to the temple in its centre.
“He does,” said Anna.
Laurence looked at her monitor and saw the skull-face staring back at him with hollow eyes. The breath caught in his throat. The skull was laying on the floor of the temple near the opposite dark doorway, scattered across the stony ground with a miscellaneous jumble of other bones. Anna had zoomed in so they could clearly see the skull. Millennia may have separated Laurence and Anna for this distant ancestor, but there was nothing to show this. In evolutionary time scales it was still the skull of a modern human. Laurence wondered if Anna was right and this was an ancestor-worshipping grave-site, or whether this poor unfortunate had simply died in the temple as they sought shelter from the rising waves. He knew it was silly, but Laurence found himself staring into the empty eyes of the skull, trying to get some sense of the person who had once lived. Only emptiness stared back, a hollowness that spoke of echoing benighted chambers deep below the earth.
Buried here, died here…or sacrificed here? That was always a possibility too. A final offering from the islanders to a nameless god? Laurence shivered. Suddenly something moved, just on the edge of their vision, right on the threshold of the light cast from the submarine. Right on the very threshold of the deeper stairs.
“Whoa whoa whoa! What was that!?” yelled Laurence. Anna didn’t reply. Tight lipped, her face a mask of concentration, her hands had already shot to the controls to spin the submarine towards the movement. The pool of light they cast slid over a carpet of bones like a funeral shroud being pulled across the dead. The osseous carpet grew thicker and more tangled at the entrance to the steps, and a few of the lighter bones rattle around in a macabre dance as though recently disturbed.
“Haha, just bones caught in the tide,” laughed Anna, although there was an edge to her voice that said she didn’t quite believe that. Was even the pragmatic Anna spooked? wondered Laurence. That creeped him out more than anything else. He wondered again about the desperate paintings and the rising waters and the purpose of this temple. Was it really ancestor worship, or had the ancient people of Dogger Bank island reached out for help from someone or something that should have been left undisturbed? Laurence’s eye strayed to a painting near to the foreboding stairway; a painting of the islanders filing into the temple of menhirs, and of something squatting at its centre, something dark and indistinct and…
Laurence shook his head. What was the matter with him? He was a scientist dammit! Well, a geologist, but still, he shouldn’t be scared of the dark. But what he should be scared of was being complicit in trashing a multi-million pound remote submersible. Even if Anna would take the majority of the blame, the rest of the dive season would still be a write-off, and that meant no pay cheques.
“Shall we see some more wall paintings? Take a look at what’s down these stairs?” said Anna, as though she could see the cloud of dissent forming in Laurence’s mind.
“No, look Anna, we need to get the sub out of there before the cable gets tangled and we lose it – and the whole operational season with it!” exclaimed Laurence.
“We can see a little more without any more risk,” said Anna firmly.
“That’s clearly not true, we have no idea when the returning king tide is going to bury this whole complex again,” exclaimed Laurence, reaching for the radio to turn it back on, “I’m at least calling winch control to see how much slack we-”
Anna forcefully smacked his hand away from the radio.
“No you’re not,” she said, “I’m submersible operations manager and I say we go on.”
Laurence snatched his hand back, and looked at her with a mixture of hurt and disbelief. Could he overpower Anna? Maybe. She looked like she worked out though, and the thought of brawling around all this expensive equipment made him nauseous.
“Anna, this isn’t worth the risk!”
“I say it is.”
“Well, fine, if you won’t let me use the radio I’ll go and speak to winch control myself.”
“Alright, I can’t stop you, but you’re going to miss out.”
Laurence paused, briefly tempted to stay, before finally making his decision and hurrying out of the operations room. Behind him, Anna carefully steered the submarine through the portal into the black abyss, searchlights scanning the walls.
It took Laurence a few minutes to work his way up through the gently pitching ship to reach winch control, where Adrian confirmed that there was about 100 metres of cable remaining. Laurence tried not to let on his concerns, nodding nonchalantly along to what Adrian was saying. But he left again as soon as he could without looking like he was hurrying off. As he descended the steps to bring him back onto the submersible operations level, he began to hear something that wasn’t part of the normal background noise of the ship. When he rounded the final corner he realised what it was. It was screaming.
Laurence doubled his pace and ran through the open doorway into operations. There he beheld a scene of chaos. All the video monitors and remote control equipment for the submarine had been completely destroyed, as though frenziedly beaten with a blunt object. The back-up hard drives had been pulled from the computers too, and stamped flat on the metal deck in a terrible panic, entirely destroying the digital record of everything the submarine had seen that day. As Laurence surveyed the damage in slack-jawed bafflement, he spotted the source of the noise. Anna was curled up in the foetal position in the corner of the room, screaming and screaming and screaming as loud as she could, her eyes screwed tightly shut and her face a contorted mask of pure terror. Becky was there too – the coffees abandoned on the floor – desperately trying to comfort Anna. But the screams would not stop.
Numbly, Laurence reached for the radio to call for help, but before he could transmit he heard an incoming message.
“-erations. Come in submersible operations. This is winch control. What’s going on down there? Is the submarine caught? The cable had gone taut! It’s starting to pull on the ship! Submersible operations, are you there?!”
Wide-eyed, Laurence watched as the abandoned plastic coffee cups began to roll across the floor, trailing spilt coffee as they went. The whole room was tilting subtly to port. Laurence thought he heard a soft groan of metal from several decks below, but it was difficult to tell as Anna’s scream became louder and louder still…