The light swept through the inky dark, igniting a blizzard of tiny lifeforms into into shimmering iridescent snow. The capsule was at its limit, groaning with the pressure of three thousand and six hundred atmospheres. The two people on board stared out the bubbled windows, searching and entranced.
"Time to come up," said the radio.
"No," said Malcolm Chester, the pilot, without pressing the talk button.
"They can't hear you," said Ross Arnold, the mission specialist.
"No, they can't," said Malcolm. "There's something out here."
"There's a lot out here. This is deeper than anyone's gone. Who knows."
"Do you read?" asked the radio.
"Oh, shut her up, will you?" said Malcolm.
Ross retreated from his bubble and looked at the back of Malcolm's head.
"What's up with you?" asked Ross. Malcolm didn't turn around and he didn't answer. Ross sighed and pressed the talk button. "We read you Claire," he paused, thinking, "just five more minutes."
"You're going to run out of air--you can only ascend so quickly--"
"Yeah, but there's a margin. Five more minutes."
There was silence on the radio.
"Two," said Claire finally. "And don't let Malcolm bully you."
"I won't. Over."
Ross scratched his forehead, watching Malcolm.
"I heard her," said Malcolm. "Stop staring at me."
"Right," said Ross. He wiggled back down into his bubble, and watched the flotsam of the Marianas Trench glide by. "We need to come back and get samples of all this stuff, at some point. If we can get the funding. It's a shame we couldn't get the scoop ready for this mission. All these little bodies floating by, unaware that we're here, completely oblivious to the fact that there is land on this planet, that this is a planet, and that a whole universe lies outside the depths of these waters."
"They're only a few millimeters big--I don't think they're capable of thinking about much of anything."
"No, of course not. But could you imagine, if something intelligent could evolve down here, what would it think? What would it dream about? What stories would it tell?"
"Shut up. You're ruining the peacefulness."
A sound like a gunshot reverberated through the cabin. Ross and Malcolm simultaneously scrambled to the center, away from the windows. A short series of popping sounds followed.
"What is that?" asked Ross. "Are we loosing cabin pressure?"
"At this depth, we would be dead already," said Malcolm.
"The what was that?"
"Dunno," said Malcolm. "I think it's coming from outside."
"What would make that sound?" asked Ross.
"You tell me. You're the biologist. Sounded big, whatever it was," said Malcolm.
"That's not..." Malcolm rubbed his face.
"Not whales. Not squid, far as I know--"
The popping sounds returned, and seemed to be circling the vessel. Malcolm slowly eased back into position by the window and looked out. The radio cracked and both men jumped.
"Your time is up," said Claire. "Do you read?"
Ross sprung at the radio, clutching it with both hands.
"Yeah we read. Something's happening down here."
"What? What is it?" asked Claire.
"Something big's here, pinging us, I think. Oh my God, I just realized--"
"What?" asked Claire and Malcolm simultaneously.
"It's like sonar. Whales and dolphins use it, I mean it is sonar because it's sound, but they use it to look behind things, and I say look, because that's what we assume, that they form an image in their brain of what they're pointing sound waves at," the cadence of his voice was becoming increasingly choppy and rapid, "but they don't just look behind, they look through and in. Like they can see what people look like on the inside, and whatever's out there is looking inside here."
"What?" asked Malcolm, the fulcrum of his eyebrows, the top of his nose was knitted in three distinct wrinkles.
"It makes sense. Down here there's no usable light. Eyes are useless. Anything intelligent at all would use sound to see."
The popping noises stopped.
"And hear, too, maybe," said Ross.
"Get up," said Claire. "That's it. You're done. I'm creeped out. Do you read? I'm fucking creeped out!"
"No," said Ross.
"I'm paying for half this expedition! Get the hell up here! If you don't care about your lives, at least take into account the many millions of dollars I spent on that submersible you're in!"
Malcolm reached over and shut off the radio.
"You feel it too, don't you?" Malcolm asked Ross. Ross nodded. "What would do that? What would have that effect on us?"
"It's like if you in the woods, and suddenly all the birds go quiet, and you know there's a large predator around," said Ross.
"Yeah, it's like that," said Malcolm. "I know we should go back up..."
"We should, we really should..."
Whiteness filled the space around Malcolm's bubble window. It lingered for a second in the beam if light, then flashed by. Ross pushed in next to Malcolm, straining to see. The two men lay side by side, squeezed in intimately close.
"You're on my hand," whispered Malcolm, with pain.
"Sorry." Ross shifted.
The popping started again, but this time in a rhythm, alternating high tones with low tones.
"What is it doing now?" whispered Malcolm urgently.
The whiteness came again, and both men pressed there faces against the bubble. It wasn't just white, but semi-translucent. Under the surface there were veins or fibers, and either liquid or light coursing through them. Ross mumbled something unintelligible, then the fibers started to separate, into long thin strands as thick as thumbs, and the darkness of the ocean reappeared in the spaces between them.
"Wha..." said Malcolm. He looked quickly up and down and to the side, and tried to look through Ross's head but only met his partner's gaze.
"It's a swarm," said Ross. He looked back out the window at the fading strands. The popping subsided. "A collective swarm. I'd love to know how they make those sounds."
"It's intelligent, isn't it?" asked Malcolm.
"Hard to be sure, but I sure felt like I was being analyzed."
The black and the quiet returned completely.
"I think it's gone," said Malcolm. He shimmied out of the close space and shifted over to the control panel in the center of the cabin.
"Yeah," said Ross, with a note of sadness.
Malcolm started the ascent sequence.
"We'll be back," said Malcolm after they started to rise. "I don't care how much it costs, we are definitely coming back."