I AM 612 FEET BELOW the surface, and I am furious.
Eric is connected to my dive belt by an 8-foot rope. When I look in that direction, I feel myself getting angry again and I purposefully let it go. At these depths, an increase in heart rate and breathing means increasing my risk of narcosis. Below 600 feet I already feel like I’ve downed several martinis on an empty stomach.
They gave me the option of the 12-foot rope. Usually we would use the 8-foot; it’s safer to keep anything that’s attached to you as close as feasible, in order to prevent the lines from becoming tangled. But we discussed the 12-foot option in case I didn’t want to have Eric’s body that close to me for 14.5 hours. They offered it like they were doing me a favor by allowing me to recover his corpse, as if he hadn’t died under their watch, on their rig. The company wouldn’t even use the word accident because they didn’t want to admit their own liability. Even as we planned the body recovery dive, they insisted we refer to his death as the “incident.” I went with the 8-foot rope.
Instead of thinking about how angry I am at the company, I force myself to look directly at Eric. That is for safety reasons. Every time I catch Eric’s hand moving out of the corner of my eye, my adrenaline spikes and I have to fight down the urge to hook him up to my backup tanks. When I look directly at his face, there is no way to believe that he is still alive.
We—Eric’s corpse and I—wait at the 550-foot decompression stop. I have to stay here for an hour and ten minutes while the nitrogen and helium that have been forced into my tissues by the deep water pressure flush out of my body. I flip through the decompression profile we planned, and through the several alternates I am carrying with me on slates. I have the dive plan memorized, but in a deep-sea technical dive, missing a mark means death or serious injury. I won’t be met by my first support diver until the 350-foot mark.
Eric has shifted in the bruise blue water so his back is to me, which is better. It lessens my urge to jam my mouthpiece between his white lips, but it does nothing to distract me from my anger at the company and focusing on that anger could kill me. I remind myself that this is like any other dive: the way to survive is to dive the plan. The timing is precise. The dive master is waiting at the surface for communication from me. I write the all clear on a dive slate and tug the line, but it isn’t immediately pulled up.
I breathe slowly and deeply to get all of the carbon dioxide out of my lungs, and the process calms me a little bit. I look down, which from here is a bit like peering off the edge of a tall building from a midair balcony.
Somewhere below us (112 feet below us) are the lights of the drilling station. It looks different now that the machinery has come to a halt following the “incident,” but I can’t afford to think about why. I wasn’t there when the incident happened, and I can’t let myself think about that either. I haven’t been looking at it because I have been running the dive plan through my head, cycling through the subroutine of survival: How long should I be here? Where am I going next? Each breath is a conscious action in a way it hasn’t been since I was diving for the Navy.
I notice blackness in the water. At first it’s below me, and I think it is blooming out from the rig, that oil is spilling out into the water. A hundred questions occur to me all at once. Does the company know about this? Does the spill have something to do with Eric’s death? I look over at him expecting an answer but of course he can give none. What caused it? How much oil has leaked into the water?
I forcibly stop this train of thought. I cannot become distracted. I cannot panic. I look at my dive calculator. I mentally repeat the list of the symptoms of narcosis, starting with the ones I am experiencing and ending with the ones I have never experienced. Lightheadedness, disorientation, difficulty concentrating, anxiety, inattention, decreased coordination, poor judgment, hallucinations, coma, death. Lightheadedness, dis-orientation, difficulty, concentrating, anxiety, in, attention, decreased, coordination, poor judgment, hallucinations. Hallucinations comma death.
I inhale. I exhale. I wait for seven seconds. I inhale again. Still a full hour to go at the 550-foot stop; if I swim higher without time to decompress, I will die.
I chance a look below me again, and the black bloom has spread out, and I realize that it isn’t streaming from the sea floor, at least I can’t see a stream connecting it to any of the groundwork. It looks like an oil-slick morning glory unfurling; it looks like a cloud moving in the form of a snake.
Flowers, clouds, and snakes. These are not things I should be thinking of on a rescue dive, I remember, and I count the symptoms of narcosis again. Eric’s body has drifted closer to me as if for company, and his leg brushes mine. His hair now obscures his goggles; he died with his eyes open. I correct myself: not a rescue dive, a body recovery dive.
The blackness is rising from the depths, and it stretches and ripples sinuously, and with intent. I wonder how I ever mistook it for oil. I make myself stop thinking about manta rays. I make myself stop thinking about black holes. I make myself stop thinking about an image I once saw in an old film of a black silk shroud being shaken out over the tomb effigy of a king.
Something drifts past my feet and I watch it disappear below me before I register what it is: the dive slate with my message written on it.
The blackness is eye level with me and it stretches back into unknown distances, and it expands upwards in front of me as I watch. I cannot ascend any farther or I will die, I remind myself. Gasses will force their way through my bones and blood, and I will die, and it will be excruciating. I am clipped in at the decompression point, but I put a hand on the shot line as well. I look up and the water above me looks clear.
I inhale, I exhale, I wait, I inhale again. I will not panic. I will not ascend.
The blackness uncoils like it’s inhaling with me, but when my lungs fill to the brim with trimix and I stop, it keeps inhaling, expanding, spreading out its oily fingers. I try to estimate its size and I cannot, but it’s large. Large enough to swallow everything the company ever brought down here.
The blackness reaches out to me, slowly, like it’s giving me time to swim away; to swim away from the shot line, which at this depth means certain death. I don’t move. I can’t go up, I can’t go down, I can’t leave the line. I exhale and I count out five seconds.
It comes to me and it waits with me, and like a small bubble bursting in my inner ear I am hit with the realization of what it wants. An oily tendril solidifies around Eric’s foot, and it tugs.
I inhale; my hand goes to my belt. The way to survive is to dive the plan, and the plan prioritizes the living over the dead. I look at my clenched hand and for a second I think I won’t do it. I exhale and unclip the 8-foot rope.
Eric’s body is eaten by the blackness just a few feet in front of me, headfirst. As his foot disappears, I see it flex. I inhale. Hallucinations comma death. I am wearing a drysuit, but I feel oil against my skin. The muscles in my thighs clench; I cannot swim up.
I can no longer see the lights of the drilling station below me. I look up and I realize I can’t see the next decompression buoy above me either. I can no longer see any blue in the ocean beyond.
I inhale. I inhale. I inhale.
Cooper Shrivastava lives in New York City, where she works in finance by day, and writes short fiction by night. She is a graduate of the 2019 Clarion Writers’ Workshop.