27 Minutes

27 minutes. You have 27 minutes to document and observe each new landmass. The smell of low tide greets you, a briny conquest of fish and crab and oysters strewn across the new floor. Drone packs hover overhead, their pilots smart enough to avoid the stench but you wanted a more personal discovery. You peel back the sand to reveal the carcass of what was once a beluga whale. Plastic bottles in it’s belly. You’re running out of time now and all you can show for it is this dead whale.

Last week your colleagues discovered the Rhinoceros Otter. What a stupid name. It didn’t even have horns and you could barely call it an otter. You think they just liked the way rhinoceros sounded. It sounded awful as it realized the ocean was pulling away, it’s last sight a team of drones and dagger eyes scribbling in note books, recording the discovery and death of the first new specimen 20 miles from the shoreline.

Now you’re 40 miles from the shoreline and it’s 25 minutes to the next tide break. 25 minutes to race ahead of the drone packs and the jeeps and the face covers that don’t do much to mask the salty musk. You wonder how soon the team will face the trench, the dark abyss down where we couldn’t go before, where all our equipment compressed into a singularity of man and machine.

The talking heads at the news station spelled doom in all caps — “The ocean is receding. We don’t understand the effects yet. Various groups are sending expeditions to survey the new areas.”

You spent days holed up in your apartment awaiting the end times that never came, rationing tuna, crackers, and MREs with their diarrhea bubble gum. You emerged from that hole in expedition gear.

All that fear didn’t matter out here. You made it to the edge of the shoreline where the sand was still damp and cold. No footprints, no vegetation and hardly any more animal carcasses. The wind comes howling over the breakers and you hear it again, the ocean lapping on the shore.

After 40 miles it is still beautiful. You look down at the copper clasps on your jumpsuit, now green with the salt, now covered in wet sand, fish bones and blood. The wind howls again, erodes the sand from an outcropping. You move towards it, slowly. The drones haven’t noticed this yet. 20 minutes to go and the drones haven’t picked this up yet?

You push away more sand until you hit a hard, metal hatch cover. It’s still pristine, no rust, no barnacles, as if the sand preserved it under the waves. 2 rotations. It won’t budge. 4 rotations. You feel movement. On the eighth rotation you feel it give, open the door to reveal a ladder.

The lights on your jumpsuit have never been used so it takes time to turn on but you work your way down anyway. You descend into the dark chambers, sand going down with you and still no drones overhead. Your light comes on, markings on the wall. Not English, not Russian, maybe not a submarine? They remind you of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the flood story scribed on pieces of stone slab. You remember the first scholar who translated the work. George Smith was so excited that he removed all of his clothes and ran through the museum in a mute frenzy. You have no words when you reach the bottom.

Arches are the first noticeable feature and you feel as if you’re inside the body of a trilobite, concave where the ridges form on it’s back. The arches get smaller towards the far side of the room. But there are still more markings to examine, so you reach into your bag, the timer says 16 minutes to the next tide break, just enough time to document and observe. You take pictures of the markings, each one less intricate, spiraling towards that far side of the room.

“Why aren’t you calling for back up?” — you whisper to yourself as you continue to examine the markings.

“No drones means no upload, everything has to be saved to local storage,” still talking to yourself. No one else is around.

You finally reach that far side of the room, where the spirals stop being legible. Sand covers the entrance, but not like the sand outside. You look for signs of moisture, mold, black spots, nothing but coarse, hardened sand.

A concussive charge could clear out the sand. Control the shockwave. You would need to be far enough away. You don’t have any ear protection. The charges are in your hand before you can finish the thought. It can produce a small enough explosion without harming the structure.

“It’s a bad idea,” you whisper again to an empty chamber.

It’s the only way to reclaim this structure. You fashion ear protection from your spare bandages. The grenade goes off and sand fills the room. 10 minutes left. You run towards the opening and hear the howling wind from outside. You reach a room larger than the last, more markings on the wall

“Body.”

Someone is in the room.

“Body.”

The sound from the charges disabled some of the lights on your suit. The room is fragments of light, just enough to see eyes in the dark, hunger pangs and mouths aware of your presence.

“Your body.”

The timer now says 7 minutes as you rush out of the conclave, past the spiraled markings, past the trilobite ceiling as the wales grow louder. And then you hear the waves. All at once, the water comes rushing down the hatch cover. You should still have 5 minutes. You should still be able to get out before the ocean claims the structure.

“Your body will sink.”

Several voices now, all in unison, all beneath you as the water rushes down. You have to push now, resist the torrential pull, climb up the hatch and out onto land. 3 minutes. You can hear your colleagues at the top, ropes fall with the water and latch onto your suit, you ascend and grip the sand as the structure sinks beneath you.

2 minutes. Too many things to recount, the eyes under the sea now as the ocean heaves back. Your team moves you away from the structure as it sinks beneath the waves and the ocean recedes again.

1 minute. The sand at water’s edge collapses, the world collapses in this corner where you see it all unfold, the warnings of going too far out, the underwater ravines now visible for all to see, the drones lose stability as they try to survey what you knew was coming all along.

The oceanic trench, the pitch black abyss where man and machine could not go before. Rocky outcroppings of spiral structures line the ravine. The wales are at their loudest and the smell of low tide creeps within nose shot. You have 27 minutes to document and observe.