The Steel Tomb
It was the frigid salt-water spraying into my face that awoke me. I sat bolt-upright only to be greeted by an explosion of pain in my forehead as it collided violently with an unseen metal surface. It seemed that I had a pre-existing headache that had now been multiplied exponentially by my own carelessness. Grunting in pain I slowly rose from the floor being certain to let my hands guide me. Upon standing up I opened my eyes... Nothing... There was nothing. Blackness enveloped the space around me in a sickening blanket. This was very bad. That could only mean that both the engines and the emergency power had failed. This was most certainly NOT GOOD. It was in that instant that my blood seemed to freeze in my veins. The water! My hands pawed at the darkness in a mad attempt to find the freezing stream that had awoken me. It didn't take long. It was the sound that gave it away. It was the sound of death itself. Luckily for me it wasn't a very big leak. Hardly enough to be worthy of extreme alarm, but it surely meant that the pressure hull had been breached. The fact that I was still alive was a miracle.
What on earth had happened that I would find myself in this predicament?! A dull haze greeted me when I attempted to probe my memories from earlier that day. It didn't matter. I had to get out of this compartment immediately. I reached into my pocket for my trusted flashlight. To my utter dismay I found that it was gone due to a gaping hole in my pant leg. My ears were telling me that the pressure in the room had already risen slightly. My hands stuck out in front of me like two antennas. Since my memory was failing me, I had only my ears and hands to guide me. A metal pipe greeted my fingertips and as they ran along its frigid length I could feel my body heat rapidly being sapped away. My hands shied away quickly before they became frozen. Nothing on board was supposed to be that cold... Unless I was standing directly beneath the refrigerant plant. I knew where I was. It was the engine room. Quite literally the worst place to be onboard for somebody who was bereft of light. In my mind I had always nicknamed it the jungle gym of death. It was due to every piece of equipment having the potential to dismember, crush, or electrocute you to death in a matter of mere seconds. It was either that or the whole steam plant deciding to rupture and recreate the scene at the end of "Raiders Of The Lost Ark."
Needless to say, I was slightly discouraged at my predicament and was not excited to begin the multi-storied climb to the watertight door that lead to the forward compartments. This task would prove difficult because of the intricate web of ladders and low hanging pipes that precariously cluttered the path. My still ringing head sent stabs of pain to the backside of my eyeballs. Reminding me that I was wounded and would have to go cautiously slow so as not to incur yet more injuries.
A thought occurred to me now that made me feel stupid for not thinking of it sooner. I almost slapped myself in the face from the sheer exasperation at my own foolishness. I thought better of it.
"Hello?" There was no response. "Hello!?! Is anyone there!?" There was nothing but the creaking of the surrounding machinery. Where was everyone? A terrible thought sprang into my mind. Maybe the reactor had sprung a leak and they had been forced to abandon the engine room barely escaping with their lives from the ensured onslaught of radiation? No... That wouldn't explain how I was still alive. Surely my vital organs would have liquified by now if that was the case. A sharp spike of pain in my ears warned me that I was wasting precious time. I had to escape and I had to do it now!
My hands swung slowly around me in a circle in an attempt to find which direction I needed to go. They quickly found a gap in the piping and I slipped through it with relative ease. The familiar sound of steel plating greeted my ears as my sneakers stepped onto it. I bumped into a handrail.
"Ok" I said to myself. I knew that I had one of two options. I was to either go right or to the left. One way would lead back to the propellor and the other would lead me closer to my goal. If I was to choose the wrong way towards the screw then I would run the risk of falling two stories into the lower levels and breaking my neck. The other would lead me to a set of ladders that would lead me to the top of the room. There was a sudden crash and a thud that emanated from somewhere on my left. Not wanting to find out what it was I turned to my right and started my slow journey in the darkness.
My outstretched extremities ran along the bulkheads and myriad apparatuses that were bolted to them. My feet collided multiple times with what felt like loose bits of debris that lay scattered all about the deck. I prayed to myself that whatever I was trampling underfoot was not anything human. There was certainly no response on the part of the debris which was both comforting and terrifying simultaneously.
A high pitched squeal arose from out of the darkness that continued in a devilish crescendo till it sounded not entirely unlike a train horn. The demonic dirge echoing off the metal interior of the boat only magnified it a hundred fold. The terror that ripped through my body in that instant cannot be described. If I had anything within my bowels to expunge at that moment it certainly would now have been stewing within the confines of my pants. Luckily for me, this was not the case. What had happened instead was not by any means more preferable. I was frozen. I was standing stock still as God-Knows-What was tearing itself apart along with half the engine room no doubt. My only guess was that there had been a catastrophic failure within the hydraulic plant and that it had ruptured. Three thousand pounds of hydraulic fluid bursting from a hole less than a millimeter wide was known to cut grown men in half...
The pressure was now rising at an alarming rate. If I didn't get to the door in time the atmospheric pressure alone could seal me permanently in this underwater tomb. With my legs feeling like cinder blocks I slowly began to move towards, to what I was now certain was indeed, the right way. The feeling of relief that washed over me when my hands wrapped around the all too familiar ladder that would take me to the uppermost level was, by most accounts, incalculable.
Without warning my breathing started to become ragged and painful. At once I knew what had happened. The hydraulic fluid had ATOMIZED! The sickening cloud rose from the depths below and I could feel my skin becoming oily with it's greasy embrace. Holding my breath I quickly removed my undershirt and fabricated a makeshift scarf to wrap around my nose and mouth. The pain was considerably more manageable but I had to climb up quickly if I wanted to survive.
My hands grasped the higher rungs and slowly began to pull myself up into the unknown dangers above. To me, what lay in wait overhead was inconsequential. I wasn't going to stay down below and wait to die! As I ascended, the shrieking machinery below began to slowly wane in pitch and volume. It wasn't merely my increasing distance that was responsible for this, but rather that the hydraulic system, which had a finite amount of fluid to expel, had rapidly dumped a majority of it contents into the room already. This phenomenon could best be described by a party balloon slowly leaking out. At first it would eject air rapidly but as the pressure decreased it would begin to evacuate air more slowly.
My right hand reached for the next rung and found only air. I had made it to the top. My feet stayed firmly planted on the rungs as my hands firmly positioned themselves upon the surrounding deck. A pain shot through my left arm as I lifted myself out of the gaping hole. I winced as the feeling of liquid fire being poured down my arm slowly ebbed away. I had no time to dwell upon it. If my memory served me correctly, I was now merely twenty feet from the opening of the reactor tunnel that lead to the watertight door.
Blindly stumbling in the dark I hunched over in an attempt to not have my head collide with any of the low hanging ventilation ducting. The heat radiating from the wall that separated me from the nuclear reactor was surprisingly cooler than normal. This could only mean that the reactor wasn't on or in a even worse scenario that the boat was dead... Not wanting to acknowledge the sheer hopelessness of my current predicament I walked along the seemingly endless corridor until my fingers felt the cool steel door that separated me from the rest of the boat. I tried the handle and attempted to pull. It wouldn't budge...
Panic enclosed around my heart like a python does when it commences to kill its prey. In a terrible rush of adrenalin and fear I began pounding on the door with my fists. The dull thuds of my hands colliding with the bowl shaped surface of the door was lamentable. I might as well have been shouting in a sound proof room. I tried to scream but the sheer dryness of my throat quickly put that to a stop.
I fell upon the floor in desperation to find some blunt instrument that would give me aid in my quest to alert somebody on the other side that I was hopelessly trapped. Fumbling in the darkness proved useless. I returned to the door to hammer on it a little more. Something clattered at my feet. The familiar metallic sound almost made me shriek with joy. My knife that had been precariously perched on my belt had just fallen off. I had completely forgotten about it. I bent over to snatch it and was lucky enough to find it relatively quickly. Knife in hand, I flipped it around and began to strike the door with the pommel. I attempted to use what little of morse code I knew to alert the others.
TapTapTap... Tap... Tap... Tap... TapTapTap... It was a simple S.O.S. The metal upon metal combination proved far more effective at creating a recognizable signal. I prayed that SOMEBODY would hear it. What felt like hours must have been just mere minutes when I began to hear almost indeterminable clicking sounds emanate from the other side of the door. My heart jumped in excitement. Was I about to be freed from this steel tomb?!
I stopped my tapping to listen more closely. Without warning, sharp taps that were not my own erupted from the doorway. Somebody was there! Without thinking I began to pound upon the door with the butt of my knife and began yelling at whomever it was to let me out. The tapping on their end ceased and I could hear very muffled speech.
Based upon the two stark tonalities of sounds that I heard I could only guess that there were two people on the other side rather than just one. From the crescendo in volume, it sounded like they were arguing. It was far too faint and muffled to be understood. I just hoped that they would stop arguing and just save my sorry hide. The yelling stopped. There was a squeak and a creak and suddenly the room began to depressurize. They had opened the ventilation bypass valve to equalize the pressure of both the engine room and the missile compartment! I was only seconds away from being able to open the door and escape this compartment. The sound of the locking ring squealed in protest as it was turned by the individuals on the other side.
With an almost anti-climatic "Click" the door swung open.
"Holy Shit! It's Hughes!!" I immediately felt multiple hands gruffly take hold of me and pull me through the doorway.
"Close that door and secure that valve!" barked a gravely voice. It sounded like my XO.
"Close the door and secure the valve aye sir!" chirped a younger voice. There was some grunting as I heard a couple of individuals shut the door and reengaged the locking ring. There was also a distinct whistling as the ventilation valve was slammed back into its closed position. I still couldn't see a thing. I was beginning to wonder how these men were working so efficiently in the pitch blackness.
"Does anybody have a flashlight? I've been in the dark back there so long..." There was now an almost sickening silence that fell upon the group around me.
"Son... We all have our lights on..." said my XO seemingly stunned.
"No you don't! If you did I would be able to see them! With all due respect..." Then it hit me. My hand slowly lifted. My fingers slowly scoured the circumference of my head and found a horrible mound of swollen flesh and dried blood at my right temple. I was blind... I let that sink in for a second. It was my XO that broke the silence.
"Hughes! We're all very happy that you're not dead but there are more pressing matters at hand to attend to. Are you well enough to don an escape suit?" I let my numbed mind roll the thought around before responding.
"I believe so sir. I just don't know how well this will work with not being able to see..."
"Well you either don the suit or wait down here and risk not being able to be rescued. We are sorry that you've lost your sight but we're out of options! On top of that, Doc has already gone up to the surface with the rest of the crew."
The answer was painfully obvious. With a bit of reluctance and a little help from some of my fellow shipmates I slipped into my escape suit. I knew from memory that while wearing one of these things I looked like a orange monstrosity. It would however, keep me alive while I ascended rapidly to the ocean surface. I began to ask questions of the guys around me as to what had happened. Nobody really knew for certain. Some said that we had hit an underwater mountain. Others said that the reactor had failed and that after losing power we had run aground. Apparently the emergency ballast tank air system had failed catastrophically. That clearly explained why we were stuck down here. The pressure gauges about the ship indicated that we were over four hundred feet below the surface. Contrary to popular belief, this was surprisingly lucky.
Upon getting fully dressed out I was informed that it would soon be my turn to use the escape chamber. I was terrified. The last time I had done this was back in submarine school, and even then that had only been in about thirty feet of seventy-five degree water. This was a hundred times more petrifying. It was the signature slam of the escape trunk hatch that snapped me back into reality.
"Hughes! You and Wing-nut are up!" When I tried to stand up my legs felt like jelly. I didn't really want to do this at all. It was however, exceedingly more attractive than the alternative. With a little coaxing and some support from the remaining crew I was able to climb the stubby ladder into the escape trunk. The sound of my own breathing echoed loudly in the steel bubble that I was now standing in. I heard Wing-nut's boots "Clacking" up the ladder and felt his body push up against mine as he situated himself in the cramped space.
"You gonna be alright Hughes?" Exclaimed Wing-nut.
"Yeah..." I said half-heartedly.
"We'll you're already doing better than me over here. I think I'd rather being doing paperwork than this crazy shit. No wait... What am I saying!? I hate paperwork! If we don't survive this bullshit I'm going to be pretty mad." I smiled at his remark. Wing-nut was one of the few honest friends I had on board the boat. He was torpedo-man who openly loathed the system by which the Navy was run. His demeanor was that of unbridled eccentricity. Which invariably gave him his befitting nickname.
During the particularly boring nights on board I'd find myself traveling down to see him and talk to him for the sheer sake of entertainment. He always had the most outrageous stories. Whether or not there was any truth to them was irrelevant. When you're on a submarine you learn pretty quick that you have to get pretty creative at entertaining yourself or go mad with months of boredom. The sudden bang of the escape trunk's door below me sent shivers down my spine.
"Alright! Zip up your hood!" quietly roared Wing-nut. My fingers groped the plastic hood draped over my shoulders and after a few seconds found the zipper. With a definitive "ZIP" I became effectively incarcerated in what would be the only shield between me and the crushing ocean depths. I heard Wing-nut scrambling about with the ball peen hammer that was permanently attached to the interior of the trunk. There was a sharp "PING" as he struck the wall to signal to the remaining crew members that we were ready for the next step. Then came a sharp hissing sound that turned into a roar. It accompanied by a painful stabbing sensation in my ears. It meant that we were equalizing our pressure with the outside ocean. I yawned in an attempt to relieve the pressure. It worked well enough.
"It says we're sitting at about fifty feet of pressure Hughes!" yelled Wing-nut over the incessant din. For the next minute and a half minutes he continued to yell out the pressure readings. A hundred... Two hundred... Two hundred and fifty... The hissing stopped.
"Onto the next step" announced Wing-nut.
"Right!" I retorted. My suit was equipped with a plastic hose that was fixed with a spring-loaded nipple that plugged into it's respective manifold on the inside of the trunk. It would be this that allowed me to breathe while the chamber filled with water around us. My right hand firmly grasped a handle that jutted from the wall as my left hand fumbled blindly to find the manifold. After a couple of attempts it found its mark and I could then feel air rushing around me as my suit inflated. There were a couple of more strikes from the hammer and then the roar started up again. There was no going back now...
I could feel the frigid water lapping around my feet as it rose slowly higher. Along with the introduction of the water came the continued increase in pressure. The air became wickedly hot because of it. No... Hellishly hot... The water was at my knees now. I could feel it slowly leeching away my body heat through my multiple layers of clothing as my lungs continued to be punished by the ever increasingly hot air. The water was now at my chest. The fact that my suit was being constantly inflated made my body positively buoyant. Approximately 80 pounds of buoyancy to be more precise. My right arm began to struggle under the weight of my suit lifting upward. My left stayed firmly attached to the air line even amidst the increasing difficulty. I could hear the water lapping at my Buzz Lightyear like helmet of air. My right arm was beginning to severely hurt now and at times I almost felt as if I would accidentally let go. It was only by the grace of the adrenaline pumping through my veins that I didn't. To do so at this stage in the process would have spelled almost certain death.
I was submerged. The sluggish nature of my movements and the muffled nature of the roar indicated as such. My body rocked back and forth under the strain of my suit desperately wanting to rise. Then... The roaring stopped. I heard a small rush of bubbles as the hatch above slowly opened. I felt Wing-nut take off like a bat out of hell behind me. Now it was my turn. I forcefully kicked away from the wall and felt myself shoot upwards as if being pulled by an alien force. A very important part of my training came back to me mere seconds into my launch.
"Don't hold your breath" they had said. To ensure that I didn't I began to yell at a constant pitch as my body made a mad dash for the surface. If I had been so stupid as to hold my breath then my lungs would literally have exploded from the force of the rapidly expanding air.
My ears began to yet again feel as if needles were being plunged into them. I tried hard to equalize them but it was no use. I felt the membranes tear sharply and was immediately greeted by a terrible ringing. Before I even had time to address this issue I found myself skyrocketing out of the water and into the outside air.
I was free...