Some would say organic life, itself, stands as nothing more than the most intricate and complex of machines ever conceived by whatever Almighty they choose to lend their believes toward; but for Alfred Emmanuel Eden, that concept might prove ever the more whispering truth.
He tapped a finger on the keys to activate the monitor, letting the light shine throughout the cavernous room, illuminating the faces of all the members of the expedition that decided to watch the task unfold instead of waiting inside POD-129 like the others. On the screens, nothing showed but the subtle hints of motion in the dark—and that, more from the indicator lights on the drone than anything else, the soft glow of blue and yellow beams hitting the geology of its descent into the depths of the planet’s crust.
Eden and the rest sat at the last monitoring station into the plummet known as Stretch-4, an inhospitable section of the caverns that had been dug nearly three miles into the earth from underneath the ocean. Their jobs are—or, at least, were… to monitor this region of seabed at the bottom of the Atlantic to determine the stability of the tectonic plates in preparation of a much larger project designed to create a safe-haven for the world’s population should the planet’s magnetic sphere especially “disappear” after years of abuse from the non-inattentive, arrogant species that called its surface “home”.
Continuing on from his prior thoughts as his eyes rolled across the screen to check the drone’s readouts; a machine, robots, they would call them, weren’t all that different from organic life. They needed a heart (a power source) much as animals do, a circulatory system that supplies the whole of the body with energy from that source, optics in which to see, and, perhaps most important of all… a mind, vibrant and imaginative enough to have its own thoughts and express emotions of their own without the guidance of those who made it possible. Eden spent more than a few nights debating that subject on his own terms, asking the question of whether or not the majority of people didn’t see these artificial beings as being alive simply because humanity had been the ones that created them. Were they alive?
Eden would then be left to ask those same people: if they believed in God or a higher deity of a sort, how they would react if that Being that created them did not see them as a part of life, rather more an unintended byproduct that came about with the creation of the expansive universe? They would argue it… as anyone with a mind of their own would. They knew they were alive, so thus, they must be; and whether it’s because of arrogance or the inability to imagine an existence so large that thinking in such a way made them feel small, is a question that has plagued scientists like him far longer than what troubles in recent years would have been deemed by the public at large.
The console beeped as one of the camera monitors flashed with static. “It’s getting deep—signal’s starting to crap out on us,” explained one of his partners to the crowd of spectators from the POD.
“Nothing to worry about,” Eden assured them, hitting a few buttons to make the warnings go away. “The drone is passing through a stretch with high-metallic content. Our technology is state-of-the-art, but it has its limits. It still takes an hour for messages to pass between the Martian colonies and ISA receivers in southern France.”
They all knew the reason this operation was taking place, Eden thought. None of this was outlined by their ten-year mandate to find a location for the Sanctuary and begin construction on facilities large enough to house over a million people. Here and now, they were off the books, with very little in the way of government intervention, although the militaries of the world kept a unified force at the various POD’s across the ocean floor in case of emergencies. What they were doing now was purposely left unreported to those on the surface, least they scrub the mission and decide to scuttle the entire base with its personnel still inside.
That had been the piece of foreboding knowledge that hung over all their heads. Knowing they were but a means to an end.
Much as the universe beyond the planet’s atmosphere was a plethora of the unknown, the seabed beneath the Atlantic remained just as mysterious. And in case the expedition ever came across something it could not handle, a part of their mandate would be to prevent it from ever endangering the surface should the unlikely to occur.
For three of those years the expedition went about its duties with the repetition one would expect of life under the ocean waves. The crews and scientists, soldiers and administrators alike would wake up from their bunks; make coffee in their private kitchens before heading to the commons for breakfast. There, they’d talk to their crew leaders and discuss the business of the day before setting off to work, coming back occasionally when their duties allowed.
Eden enjoyed the familiarity of it all, although he would have to admit that cases of cabin fever have been rising to near worrisome levels since after the first month. Those people would be sent to the surface via the next scheduled submersible docking and resupply to recuperate for a couple days in the sun, away from the often nightmarish creatures that existed in the depths the POD had been situated.
Violently the drone tilted on its axis and spun rapidly out of control, plunging into the darkness of the hole before Eden cut the feed.
“Another one lost,” he said.
“What happened?” somebody asked.
“To conserve power for the return trip up—we’ve been trying to fly drones into the abyss without their headlamps, meaning for the entire trip there’s no way to tell what’s in front of us other than what the basic sensor readings can send back.”
“Did it hit the bottom?” asked someone different, a woman, whom Eden did not bother to turn to in regard. He merely shook his head.
“See those numbers?” He pointed at the rapidly advancing lines underneath the drone’s camera feed banks. “The fact they’re still advancing means the bot is continuing to monitor its descent. Nothing we can do about it.”
“Why not turn the thing upright if it flipped over?”
“Because all the other gauges are confused, and I can’t tell the difference between what’s up and down via the feed I’m getting here… and here.” He tapped a knuckle on the screen, turning his chair to meet the rest of those who gathered inside Stretch-4. “That’s the third we sent down the hole this week, meaning—”
“Meaning progress will be halted until the soldiers can determine what’s at the bottom,” an older gentleman said from the back of the spectators. A whispered tone of worry echoed between them; a dread Eden felt, too, building tension in his gut.
Eden didn’t want to be “sacrificed” down here to the waters, drowned.
And that meant a real problem, didn’t it?
One of the lower ranked engineers back at the POD offhandedly called the aberration “the Descent,” when the excavators first uncovered it on the outskirts of the trench. The name stuck in the proceeding months, and during the process of carving out the Stretches, somebody had the bright idea of fashioning a sign near the Stretch-1 outpost that read:
PREPARE FOR THE DESCENT
REMEMBER TO RISE
Eden didn’t much understand the humor.
Locke squeezed on through the crowd to peer into the darkness beyond the glass aperture that allowed them to see into the caverns.
“You lost this one, Eden,” Locke said, referring to their arrangement.
“I’ll tell the Colonel another one of his toys are gone.”
“Maybe he’ll send men into the trench to bring them back?” Locke suggested. “Several million-dollars for each, and there’s seven down there… it’s a good chance for us to look for ourselves what’s been trying so hard to keep our attention.”
The room went silent.
While Eden could be considered the leading researcher of POD-129—Lock held the prestigious honor of being the Director of their division’s projects, which meant, whether anybody wanted to admit it or not, his word was second only to that of the military.
“It would be quite the opportunity,” someone whispered to another.
“Enough of these machines we’ve been sending!” Locke called, turning back, a determination in his eyes. “We’d have to draw up a strategy and figure out the best way of getting a team down there, along with the soldiers, of course, if the endeavor has any chance of success.”
“That would take several weeks—trial and error preparations, not to mention trying to convince the garrison to allow us to do more than just return their lost equipment.” Eden pondered the thought. “Getting down wouldn’t be a problem,” he continued. “It would be trying to find a way back up from the planet’s core.”
“Luckily we have some of the most brilliant scientists in the world within a network of over three-hundred PODs to help us figure it out, eh?” Locke suggested. “Everyone else has been clamoring to see what we uncovered here. Perhaps it’s time to allow them a peeking glance—if just to satisfy them for a short while.”
Eden gave a nod as he glanced back to the monitoring screens.
The drones have most certainly crashed into something down there, so there’s hope they’d find something other than their past failures once they reached the bottom.
The geology alone from the heart of the planet’s cooled core could provide a wealth of scientific data that could help humanity’s efforts in preparation for another cataclysmic disaster. When they first found the Descent, superstition rattled the cages of the paranoid and schizophrenic. Tales of ghosts wandering the corridors of the POD and walking along the tunnels of the Stretch heightened to their peak around three-weeks ago. A few of the more vulnerable inhabitance of their facility had taken to violent outbursts, nearly scarring for life a few of the medical assistants merely trying to help them.
“I’ll begin by talking to some of the other administrators in order to gather a list of the most qualified people to send down there,” Locke explained, walking to the door and pushing the button, letting the bulkhead doors to swish open. “You will talk to the Colonial about devoting resources to this new project, Eden. We’ll conference in the morning to discuss the preliminaries.”
And with that, Locke left the station to catch one of the trams that would take him up the Stretches and back to the POD. The others remained at their stations for a little while—those who lived in the residential module at Stretch-4 would return to their bunks once their duties for the day were completed.
Eden studied the readouts from the drones for a few minutes longer before deciding to stand up and stretch his legs. He stared out of the same viewport Locke had been looking out of to see the ring of lights the excavator machines strung up when they first detected the Descent, when one of their brethren fell to its demise after cracking open one of the brittle walls that separated the original expansion project from the abyss.
None of them knew this had been here, like an elevator into hell itself that attracted the unwary and curious alike.
All it would take was a single step.
After pondering on his thoughts for a while, Eden walked out of the outpost and toward the tram platform in following Locke. Many of his co-workers had already made their way there and were waiting to board when the next train returned.