The lack of a return cargo was allowing them to make better time back, Chris noted happily. He’d also had time to investigate the harmonic while he’d been preparing the Serpent for launch, and it had just required replacing a few parts to deal with. It definitely made it easier to relax when he wasn’t worried about the engines failing.
The night and date had gone well and without interruptions, which made everything even better. Despite some ribbing from Zeke in the morning, things were looking up, Chris thought… and that was why he cringed when the comm system buzzed.
“What’s that?” Janice asked, looking up from her phone in surprise.
“Emergency communication. Looks like… from Sanctuary?” Chris replied, his eyebrows rising. “One second.”
When Zeke appeared on the screen, Chris’s eyebrows rose more and he asked. “Zeke? What’s going on?”
“Chris, good, you answered.” Zeke said, looking relieved. “Look, without giving anything away, are you on your way back to the States?”
“Umm, of course I am. Why do you ask?” Chris asked, frowning.
“We just got a distress call from the Chinese military.” Zeke explained quickly. “They have a sub between here and the United States. The sub reported that when they tried to ascend, the ballast tanks refused to fill and that it was starting to slowly sink downward. Shortly after that they lost contact with the submarine and are requesting our assistance. We’re scrambling a rescue sub, but based on the rate they were sinking at, we’re not likely to reach them before they reach crush depth, Chris. Is there any way you could intercept and arrest their descent so we could reach them?”
“Holy shit, umm, give me a sec.” Chris said, blinking and quickly running through the things he had on board. He occasionally used the Serpent to salvage gear from off the ocean floor, so he thought he’d be able to manage it, but… after a moment he glanced at Janice. “Janice? You okay with this?”
“I’m a heroine, if we can help, of course we should!” Janice replied, giving him a chiding look. “You should know that.”
“Hey, I had to ask!” Chris protested, looking back to the screen. “Give me the coordinates, Zeke, and I’ll tell you if I can make it. How deep are they?”
“Thanks, Chris. Sending the coordinates now, and they were at about 1200 feet when the Chinese lost touch. I’m guessing they’re down to about 1400 feet now, and if they drop below 2000, they’re probably toast.” Zeke replied worriedly.
“Nah, most modern Chinese subs can handle up to 3k feet, but beyond that’s their crush depth.” Chris replied absently, looking at the coordinates and plugging them into the navigation. “Though if they’re damaged it could be bad. Let’s see… I can get there in about twenty minutes, Zeke. All I’ve got to help are some straps for hauling cargo, so I’m going to have to hold them in place until you get here. We’re damned lucky the Serpent is empty, ‘cause if it wasn’t we wouldn’t be able to keep them afloat.”
“I don’t-never mind. We don’t need to get in an argument over this. I’ll be along as soon as I can, Chris. Play it safe.” Zeke replied, then cut the connection.
“What can I do, Chris? Hell, what’re you going to do? You said that you didn’t have any gear for this kind of depth.” Janice asked, frowning unhappily.
“No, I didn’t. I said that I didn’t have any gear that could save me if we had a disaster.” Chris corrected, making sure they were on course before standing. “The water pressure of a breach can cut steel or the like, and the pressure wave would crush me, but going through the airlock is an entirely different story. I’ve got a suit that I’ve rated for up to 2500 feet that I can use. For you… well, our only option is to get you a breath mask and air tank with the right gas mix and pressure for this depth. It won’t be fun, though, not with something like 700 psi at this depth. You sure you want to help?”
“Seven hundred? That’s… painful, but I can deal with it.” Janice replied, frowning and nodding as she stood. “Of course. So what’re you planning to do?”
“I’ve got big cargo straps for salvaging ships off the sea floor, so I’m just planning to rig them around the sub and use our ballast to keep them afloat until Zeke gets here. It isn’t terribly complicated, just dangerous. Stay away from their prop if it’s running, and don’t get caught between the straps and the sub.” Chris advised, leading the way into the back of the sub. “Got that? Oh, and when we go into the airlock, the pressure will start to rise. As it does, just breath in and keep breathing in. You have to get the air pressure in your lungs to about the same pressure as the water outside.”
“Got it. This should be interesting.” Janice said.
Opening the closet to his underwater suit, Chris laughed sharply, grinning. “That’s a word for it.”
The submarine was at a bit below 1500 feet and going down steadily, Chris noticed. It also looked like something had taken off most of the upper superstructure and antennae, which explained why they’d lost contact. How was another question, since they were in the open ocean, but that didn’t matter. Chris made a point of not looking at the sub’s name, since he didn’t want to know. It wasn’t any of his business, and if he didn’t know what it was named he couldn’t irritate the Chinese by leaking it.
He’d already set the Serpent to match courses, and fortunately the Chinese sub wasn’t moving fast, so he nodded to Janice. The heroine was in a wet suit that didn’t look that much different than her heroine outfit, but she was also wearing a pair of flippers and the breath mask and air tank he’d given her, lights attached to her mask allowing her to see at their depth. She didn’t look terribly happy, but Janice nodded in return as she swam downward with the lead line, her enhanced strength allowing her to keep pace with the submarine surprisingly easily.
Shaking off his introspection, Chris triggered his own propellers to move closer to the submarine with his own line. They were taking lead lines which were easier to transport, and the Serpent would use them to draw the full-sized straps around the other vessel once they were in place, so it shouldn’t take too long. As he began to pass the other submarine, Chris studied it and frowned as his lights played across the surface of the vessel.
The problem with being this deep was the lack of backscatter, so he could only see the areas where his lights were shining, much like a spotlight of vision. It made examining the sub difficult, but Chris thought he saw marks along the vent valve of the ballast tank like someone had drilled holes through the valve. If that was the case, it’d explain why the submarine couldn’t ascend. The problem was what could possibly be—
A sudden clank was Chris’s only warning before a long, metallic tendril as thick as his arm wrapped around his helmet. Other objects lashed around his torso and arms, and Chris yelped, triggering an electrical discharge into whatever had wrapped around him.
To his surprise, the creature didn’t detach at the shock, and Chris’s eyes went wide in horror as he saw a pair of tendrils come into sight. They were long and metallic, like the tentacles of a squid but more robust and with bladed edges. More pertinently, each of them ended in drill bits that began to spin and whirr as he watched, then approached his faceplate.
“Ah, shit.” Chris mumbled, struggling against whatever his bonds were. What he’d told Janice about the water pressure came to mind and he winced, bracing himself for an ugly, violent end. It was an inglorious way to go, but he hadn’t expected something like this here.
The water lit up bright purple just as the drill bits approached his visor and Chris flinched as the visor went black to protect his vision and he felt a flash of heat. As the visor began to clear, he felt another surge of heat from behind him and the bonds trapping his limbs slackened. When the visor cleared enough, through bubbles Chris could see the half-melted, mangled remains of the tendrils. His heart racing, Chris glanced over to see Janice, the heroine grinning as she held what looked like the remains of a giant, mechanical starfish in one hand, the machine ripped apart. He gulped and nodded at her, turning to see that the remains of a similar machine, this one half-molten from her energy blasts, slowly falling into the gloom.
Janice swam up close and pressed her faceplate against his before speaking in a teasing tone. “That was close, Whisper. You sure you don’t want to leave this to a heroine?”
“Not… not on your life, Nightsinger. That scared the crap out of me, though.” Chris said, regaining his poise after a moment.
“Alright. Keep an eye out, hmm?” Janice replied, then swam off again as Chris’s heart began to calm again.
“Holy shit. That was close.” Chris murmured, then began to get back to work. This time he took care to watch for mechanical starfish. Who had built those?
“Thank God that’s done. I swear, can’t any of our dates go off without something trying to kill one of us?” Chris asked, flopping back in the chair as they resumed their voyage back home.
Behind them the Salvager One was helping the Chinese submarine make its repairs, and Zeke had promised to put in a good word with the Chinese government for their efforts. Chris wasn’t sure how much good it would do, but it would be nice to have the support of a major power, even if it wasn’t the one he lived in.
“Agreed, though we do only have a sample size of three dates to work off of. No one tried to kill us on the second date, either.” Janice said, brushing her hair again to try to get all the tangles out. “Besides, now we’re even.”
“Eh? How do you mean?” Chris asked, blinking in confusion.
Janice smiled and laughed, standing and leaning over. To his surprise she gave him a brief kiss, then said. “You saved me in the fight with White Annihilator, and now I’ve saved yours. We’re even.”
Chris blinked again, then asked. “Wait, you were keeping score?”
Janice laughed louder at that and Chris flushed in embarrassment. Some days he felt like he’d rather be dealing with an attempt on his life. Not really, but it was better than being embarrassed all the time.