The Aquanaut—Fiction by Francis Felix Rosa
Nightmarish shades of darkening blue cascaded into one another, moving continuously downward. The slosh of ocean clanged through iron girders, creating a bedroom echo in the corrugated steel cabin, like a leaky faucet. Crayola-colored fins, sparked outside the porthole beside blankets, shag carpeting, and stuffed toys in their jellyfish fur. Life at last!
Ethan closed his eyes, imagining the tapestry of zoophytes, vials of frizzed polyps, and tube worms dancing in the bioluminescent wilderness. He was desperate to stay focused, fighting to keep his seascape intact as the thought of Isaac scrambled the nodes of his brain, leaving him marooned somewhere else entirely.
He opened the cardboard hatch, cut from a leftover moving box, peering above the cramped bathysphere to where the captain stood, a serious confident man with a handsome face, coat flapping in evening mist, and silk-soft eyes, dark with wild tales of many leagues.
“Captain Nemo,” Ethan said. “What are your orders?”
“Monsieur Arronnax,” Isaac giggled. “Take the Nautilus down to 6,000 fathoms. We’re journeying into the Mariana Trench.”
Ethan threw the pillow ballast overboard where it sank under the aquatic veneer, crayon squid still passing by his field of view. Captain Nemo brooded for a moment and moved to the bathroom sink, turning the spigots to mimic the release of safety valves as the Nautilus submerged into a twilight zone. He returned smelling of sweet salt from days washed ashore as they huddled together, encased in a metallic sphere, waiting for a signal.
Ethan’s mom flicked on the light. “Boys, come out or you’re going to miss your show.”
And just like that Ethan’s world went astray, the submarine was totaled, and in its place: the leftover husk of Isaac’s last moving box in a bedroom full of nautical trinkets. It hadn’t been long enough, any of it. A summer? What was that? The blink of an eye? Going to miss the show? He was going to miss everything. The dark blue eyes, the goofy smile, the quiet contemplation like watching a monk, the way he would stroll over from across the street each day in smooth silent movements, appearing like a confident shadow of Ethan, how he pronounced Ethan’s name with just enough gusto to make Ethan’s cheeks go involuntarily red. And now his parents would be dragging him away from the beach house back to the dull townhouse, and homework, and the incoming avalanche of a new teenage life. And worse, Isaac would be relocating so desperately far. Utah he’d said. Basically another planet, a region of Mars perhaps. A family restationed by the invisible merciless hand of the US military.
“This isn’t some show,” they could hear Ethan’s dad correct. “It’s history.”
In the living room, the adults had pulled bright leather chairs around the wood-paneled television set, a curved belly of noise and movement with its knobs and toggles, a new model that now broadcast in color. Neighbors smoked and poured drinks like it was the holidays. Ethan’s dad rambled on about deep-sea excursions of Jacques Piccard and the first aquanauts, playing the professor the way he loved to at dinner parties. Ethan took a slice of blue-frosted cake from the tray and sat with Isaac, attempting to share, taking in the cool-calm aura that seemed to flow around Isaac like a second skin.
Then came images of Maritime Station, Navy men with identical haircuts and narrow shoulders lined up and smiling at the press, outfitted into strange clanking suits, superhero helmets, and bulky compression-resistance joints locking into place as they stepped into spherical chambers like something out of a Kubrick film.
“What’s all the fuss about anyway?” Isaac’s mom asked, blowing nicotine into the reflective glow of the screen. “It’s so dark and dreadful down there.”
“To beat those damned Soviet bastards,” Ethan’s dad said. He pushed back his hair like a big-time actor, and smiled the way Ethan’s dad smiled after he’d downed several bottles, slipping into silly flag-thumping monologues, breath going sour and acrid with beer.
In the late Fifties, Soviet explorations into the Mariana Trench had sent the US scrambling and ignited what was called the Waves Race. Specialized Navy scientists and engineers vied for spots aboard iron domes, plunked below the seas on thick copper coils—an atomic competition, spiraling downward into the mystic dark of international waters.
Isaac stole bites of Ethan’s cake, licking his frosting lips, smiling at Ethan and the jazzed-up adults. Somehow he was still smiling. A taciturn soldier for a family, a new house with each change of military tactic, an oceanic world he didn’t even care about, a universe collapsing in on them and still he was smiling. Maybe Isaac was just braver than him.
“It’s simple,” Ethan’s father said, lighting his pipe. “When those Russians watch us reach the bottom, they’ll know we can build military bases down there, slide undetected under the seas, weaponize them, do whatever we damn well want. They’ll think twice about launching anything silly when we’ve got deep-sea missiles and subs pointing at ‘em.”
Ethan tried to imagine it, the steel nuclear jaws of a shark from below. He shivered and knew he’d hate to be those Russians right about now.
“Remember the chaos of those Cubans and Khrushchev back in ‘62? Ninety miles off and everyone losing their heads? Heck, we’ll submerge ourselves nine miles off on every side, with our superior aquanautics, they won’t be able to do a damned thing.”
Isaac’s dad, a big quiet military man, chimed in, “He who controls the sea controls every shore.”
Everyone stared wide-eyed at the screen and then out the windowpane toward the Massachusetts Cape and its blinking lighthouses.
First men to walk at the bottom of the ocean, Ethan thought. What a time to be alive, to smell the fresh New England air, to own a TV and a thousand other electronic gadgets innovating their way toward Atlantis dreams and the final shore of black. Ethan turned to see Isaac looking bored and fiddling with his sleeves, and pulling him to the kitchen, he opened the fridge and handed Isaac a glass of Pepsi through the cigar smoke.
“I’m gonna ask my dad for scuba gear come my birthday, diving lessons too.”
Isaac popped the cap off. “You’re really into all this stuff?”
“What’s not to be into?”
Isaac motioned to where his dad sat grim as a stone amongst the other adults. “It’s mostly cold black emptiness is all. Not fond of that Russian war stuff either.”
“No, no, it’s about science. There’s a whole world down there. Habitats like jungles. This expedition is monumental, something we’ll tell our kids about.”
“Our kids,” Isaac said, still fiddling with sleeves. “Right.”
Ethan could see Cronkite droning on in the background, talking to a scientist about suit compression mechanics and gas cylinders with a black-and-white diagram. “You wanna voyage some more on the Nautilus? I’m pretty sure this plunge isn’t happening for a while, it’s barely eight o’clock.”
Isaac frowned. “Maybe another time.”
Ethan knew there wouldn’t be another time. They were getting too old for make-believe adventures in moving boxes. The circumstances and pomp of the day shrouded him in one last hurrah, but it was slipping away. The uncomfortable childishness of it all had crashed down on him the moment his mom switched the lights on, as if focusing a beam on an ugly cockroach…or underwater flashbulbs on a squirming fish.
“It’s just kind of cramped,” Isaac said.
Ethan was crestfallen. He turned to leave the kitchen, but Isaac grabbed his arm. “Hey, wait, I didn’t–” he seemed to be struggling too, and searched for words. “Monsieur Arronnax, tell me about diving.”
Ethan smiled, felt himself float a little, and regaled his captain with astounding tales of the slick spooky-blue glow when submerging under, the feeling of breathing through a high-tech straw while living like an action figure, and other nautical things he hadn’t really experienced. They moved to the bedroom and leafed through his bookshelf. Ethan ignited with stories of the writers who had started it all—biologists, engineers, and math wizards who had looked out from the shore with wispy tidal dreams for their future, which they were told to abandon, and instead had typed into existence like swinging a magic wand upon the liquid firmament of the Earth.
The boys pushed past volumes on cephalopods and cetaceans, sweeping adventure logs of Jacques Cousteau, and pressed their fingers to speculative pages, taking in the bells and whistles of science fiction: Verne’s Nautilus creeping past 20,000 leagues, Frank Herbert’s The Dragon in the Sea mining the abyss for oil, Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Journey to Atlantis and its barnacle covered monoliths. Their heads fizzled with the thought of ocean pressure and brine remolding the world.
“Let me show you something,” Ethan said.
Knowing he had Isaac’s full attention, Ethan took out a shell, this beautiful swirl on the back shelf. But before he allowed Isaac to handle its smooth contours, before he made Isaac press it to his ear, before he could ask the Captain to keep it, there was an adult calling from the kitchen, telling them to come quick. The plunge had begun. In the living room, Ethan, still gripping too many unsaid words in his hands, waded through the adults to sulk on the couch.
“August 26th in this year of 1971,” Cronkite announced, “with the eyes of the world watching, man descends into the abyss, plunging into adventurous depths previously unfathomed, for a glimpse of mankind’s future.”
The broadcast panned to Guam and a closeup of NOMA leader Don Walsh explaining the logistics of the submarine. An uncrushable alloy sphere with a reinforced circular windowpane of ground quartz was linked to a self-propelled flotation chamber, chock-full of propulsion tanks and liquid gas for buoyancy.
Then the scene cut to live images of the Challenger Deep, the holy grail of the Mariana Trench. The screen went monochromatic and blurred. Everyone squinted and pushed in close to get a sense of what they were looking at. The broadcast came live from the arm of the sub, no doubt, under crushing hydrostatic pressure. An orbed silhouette encompassed most of the screen. The aquanauts read depth measurements at 30,000 feet, then 30,500 feet, then 31,000 feet, minute after minute of shadows. The vessel looked stationary as it descended. Cloudy grains floated upward, the only movement in waves of air bubbles.
The adults shifted in their seats as the crackling messages came in: Poseidon 6 to Guam, Guam back to Poseidon 6, meaningless techno-babble coordinates. The Poseidon 6 was still maintaining position and trajectory.
Finally, Isaac spoke up. “I can’t see anything. It’s all smudgy.”
He was hushed by adults, but only spoke louder. “There’s nothing even happening. They might as well be exploring a hunk of the moon.”
Just then, the orb twirled into docking position for its final descent. Its motion stirred the world of twisted fish and micro-organisms below, and the screen exploded with light. On the television, a neon cathedral spread open with a million tiny creatures winking back at mankind in a friendly bioluminescent hello.
Everyone went silent; Isaac didn’t even take his eyes away to sip his Pepsi. The sea floor glittered madly as the vessel docked.
“35,859 feet,” the transmission stated.
From worlds far far above, lakes of fish debris fell like December snow. From the steel orb, a tube extended, a hatch slid open, and the aquanauts emerged. Their suits were stainless steel alloy and tungsten, plated in cavorite for buoyancy. Boots and gloves and helmets of clangorous giants. When they walked, the pressure must have been immense, because they dragged their feet up and planted them in clumsy movements, as if they were cheap Hollywood robots roving across a stage set. At that depth, the pressure should’ve flattened them like pancakes, squashed them into relentless oblivion so quickly it wouldn’t register onscreen. A single pinhole leak in their containment suits would have shot them full of water faster than any bullet known to science.
“Well, that’s one helluva dive for us all,” said the first aquanaut, Tom Mount, his voice crackling like tinfoil over the waves to homes across America. Young superstar Aquanaut Brett Gilliam trudged forward next with a special US flag made from reinforced titanium, nickel, and graphene. Together they held the pole delicately in their hulking gloves, so the flag wouldn’t crumple in front of an enraptured public. Animals stirred like pixie dust around them. Everyone cheered, abuzz with energy. The Aquanauts shuffled around on the seafloor, with giant isopods zooming about at their aluminum feet like jackrabbits. They soon returned to the capsule, no doubt to recover from the grueling weight bearing down on them. Meanwhile, the adults in Ethan’s living room poured more drinks and patted themselves on the back for being American and sticking it to the Kremlin.
Ethan imagined what it might have been like, stepping into those phosphorescent forests of coral, the dazzling volcanic fumes, staring up into a wondrous primordial abyss. He grabbed Isaac by the wrist, who followed without question, stupefied by the world and possibilities he’d seen on the screen.
They left the house, and crept in the night, through seagrass and marsh until they reached dunes. The tidal rhythm of the North Atlantic rippled before them. Far down the shoreline, toward jetties and clam flats, crowds were already gathering to contemplate the majesty of the sea and wonder at two men strolling around somewhere far below them, continents away.
“You want to jump in the ocean?” Isaac asked.
Ethan nodded. There was some twisted cage within him that he needed to wash away.
“Okay, but you first,” Isaac said.
“It’s like Tom and Brett, the aquanauts on TV. You gotta be the first.”
Ethan stood awkwardly in wet sand. He hadn’t thought this through and hadn’t brought a bathing suit. He panic-walked into the surf, waves splashed over him until he was submerged in foam and salt stung his eyes. His clothes were heavy with seawater, pulled down with the weight of it all. When he emerged, he was sopping wet and sand had settled in his hair.
“Hurry up,” Ethan said. “I’m freezing now.”
“Monsieur,” Isaac said, crossing his arms.” You didn’t even take your shoes off.”
“Were you embarrassed or something?”
Ethan looked away, then nodded.
“Well,” Isaac said. “I’m not.”
Suddenly, Isaac kissed him on the cheek, in an unmistakable way. Then got down to his shorts and went running in, his pale body just barely visible in the hunk of moonlight.
The universe went silent. A great dreamy pressure hung there and Ethan knew what it must have felt like for the aquanauts in the trench, in one moment, to step into a world so unfathomably alien and fantastical. As Isaac burst into the waves, Ethan half-expected to see a bioluminescent halo dripping off him.
“Helluva dive,” Ethan murmured.
On the way back, Ethan tried not to shiver. The streets were alive with people laughing, with fireworks above, horns honking from yachts and sailboats on the bay, and kids on bicycles flying down the boardwalk.
“Are you crying?” Isaac asked as they walked.
“No, it’s just the saltwater.”
“I’ll come visit you know.” There was a shakiness in Isaac’s voice as he said this, a ripple in the cool-calm field he exuded as tufts of the sandy beach swept by in the breeze, like the remnants of an hourglass.
When they returned to the beach house, the adults were all still so ecstatic that no one even minded when they trudged in, dripping water onto the new shag carpet. The boys changed into pajamas and fell exhausted into the bunk beds, Isaac climbing to the top.
Lights switched off and Ethan spent a long time restless, closing his eyes in the faint glow of a lava lamp to images of psychedelic shrimp, translucent pulpy enigmas of the deep, men in amphibious futuristic gear, bending into leaden pendulum spheres, on and on, like counting sheep; and light-beam tendrils brushing his cheek.
Finally, Ethan whispered into the void. “Hey Captain, you asleep up there?”
“No,” Isaac answered from above. “But I am dreaming.”
“Yeah,” he said, “me too.”
And in the moment Ethan said this, he felt this silly battle to breathe underwater had finally cleared away, and in its place was something novel and blameless, buoyed above the waves where everything was diveable…if only he stayed brave enough.
So, the boys watched orbs of light swim against walls, pretending there were graceful sea monsters raging at the foot of the bunk bed, leaving them wonderfully shipwrecked until dawn.
Francis Felix Rosa is the author of the children’s book Cryptidpedia. His prose has appeared in the Big Bend Literary Magazine. In 2018 he was the recipient of Wheaton College’s Helen Meyers Tate Memorial Prize for Original Verse. A wandering New Englander, he currently resides in Green Bay, Wisconsin.