The Sea of Styx

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If one sifts through the silt, digging a hole past the thin layer of mustard-yellow bacteria and past the tarlike goop below, one will find the mantle. And beyond that, if you are very, very careful and clever, you will find

Hard

Black

Scales.

✧⠀⠀⠀✦⠀⠀⠀✧

The drill would have whirred. It would have screamed a screeching howl that would make even the most grease-stained engineer wince. Covered in years of rust and rough-hammered edges, the rough spiral of the drill should have shrieked as it cut jagged scrapes across oxidizing rock and mantle. It should have cut with the most horrid of cries that a machine can make. It should have been terrible.

But that didn’t happen.

The machine sent a vibrating thrummm through the black water, sending up a veritable explosion of ashy silt which hung in clouds like how smoke hangs over a burning city. For all purposes but its own, the machine very well might have been just that: a city. A towering monstrosity with thousands of little nooks and crannies and spaces and parts and metal and gears and pulleys and little blinking lights that barely cut through the suspension of fine particulate matter cloaking its body like smog.

No, not like smog. Like smoke.

Thick and soupy, it hung, swirling as the machine hummed, in tiny eddies and streams. It was almost beautiful, hypnotic, as it caressed the machine’s hard outer shell. The machine almost felt this.

Almost. But not quite.

The eddies broke for a moment, perhaps disturbed by the wake of a passing fish, and for a fragment of a half of a second of time the machine’s antennae were exposed, and in that moment those antennae captured hypersonic clicks and pulses from high high high high

…High high high high high…

…high…

unfathomably far

so very, very far

above.

Hypersonic clicks and pulses from what might as well have been another world entirely. The machine didn’t know this, of course. It was not equipped with cameras or sensors; it could not see the water or the ocean floor that it rested on. If it were the first of its kind, the first of millions to set its hybrid-alloy hydraulic legs into the soft sediment and craggy rocks and volcanic vents of this alien world so far below, it might have seen the beauty that surrounded it. The peaceful stillness, the vast expanse of mustard-yellow silt with small pockmarks of black where machines previous had settled their legs…

But no, the machine did not see this. If it had, it might have seen what was coming.

It might have heard the rumbling. And it might have seen the smoke.

It might have turned back, never to touch that spot again. Its controllers would murmur and stroke their chins and shake their heads and call it defective, say its AI had been in service for too long and needed restructuring, for that was what happened with AI these days. But for all their shaking heads and clasped hands and pressed suits and board meetings and downturned lips and disappointed gesturing, the humans would have heeded the AI’s advice. They would have marked that area on the map as Inoperable. Everything would have been fine if that were what had happened.

But this is a different story. This is a story of carelessness, a story of hastily-put-together projects. A story of investments and irritated contractors and harsh words spoken to flustered engineers. This is a story of investors, of saying the project could do without this, that, the other thing. This is a story of a machine sent without sensors for its AI to play with, a story of the anti-rust breaking down and slowing the drill, a story of half-filled batteries sparking and faulting the GPS, a story of hasty money changing hasty hands and never making its way into pockets. This is a story of failure.

The machine dutifully speared the bedrock, turned the drill clockwise, and pressed down with all its weight. The cloud of sediment kicked up by the initial blast was settling slowly, and as the drill cut into the solid rock, a great rumbling filled the air. Had the machine been more aware, had the sensors been placed into their conspicuously empty sockets, had the AI not been serving for fifteen years yet not once been given a birthday, the machine might have survived.

The drill bit through the rock in that way that nails pounded into drywall often do: slowly, then all at once, slamming through the dead space between layers of rock with excessive force and lack of planning. From this hole, the rock split, creating a yawning chasm as layers of weakened stone and compacted sediment crumbled into the abyss. Steam would have risen from the gap, but no, this was deep beneath the waves, surrounded by and held under crushing pressure and insurmountable gravity.

The machine lurched forward, teetering on the edge of the chasm while its bit sank ever-deeper, no longer pressed down by the mighty hydraulics of the machine but rather the crushing weight of its chains.

The bit sunk.

Sinking…

Sinking…

Clink!

The machine tottered on the edge of the chasm, its drill weighing it down. A few sharp pulses rang through the water then, sent from a vessel floating in a world a thousand units of pressure lighter and three miles up. The machine listened to these, felt them ring through its sole sensory processing unit, but it couldn’t hear. Couldn’t see. Couldn’t smell, couldn’t taste. It couldn’t feel the magnetic shielding of the Earth and the radiant heat left over from the Sun and the impossibly large lifeform hiding just fifteen feet below. Ignorant of its command, Pull up, pull up, come back, the machine teetered on the edge of the chasm. Then, a moment later, it gave up. Its gravitational support unit – a large bell of lead on a pole, used for adjusting the machine’s center of mass when perched on steep cliffs and ledges just like this, swung left and forward.

If the onboard AI had seen what was about to unfold, it would have screamed and done everything in its power – dumped the reserve power units, offloaded its precious cargo of metals and crystals, decoupled and detached its outer shell – to lighten itself. It would have pressed all external power, all reserve and half-filled battery units, forward into its jet thrusters. No matter how half-mad and starved for input this AI was, its base directive would have been brought to sudden, flaring light and given utmost attention: SURVIVE.

But no, this did not happen. Because this is a story of what happens when caution is not taken. This is a story of investors seeking more money than anyone has the right to own, a story of blood and sweat and oil pipelines and burning swamps and choking smog and towering factories. This is a story of betrayal and a slowly dying world that tells itself that it is great. This is a story of the blood on the floor that never gets cleaned up.

The machine blindly fell into the chasm. The drill bit sat upright, sharp diamond-tungsten tip pointed resolutely down into the soft scales below.

The machine’s great weight made it sink faster than it should have. It went down, down, down. Its sensors, if it had any, would have picked up a staggering amount of heat emanating from below, hot enough for its self-preservation modules, had they not kicked in already from the terrible sight below, to fire. The AI onboard, however, spun brokenly in its module, blind and deaf and tasteless and so very alone.

The machine fell into the abyss. A moment later, the machine struck home.

And the water boiled.

The very bedrock cracked and shifted, creating much wider fissures and crevasses than the pitiful thing the machine had made,

And the ocean floor, with its mustard-yellow bacteria and starfish and hag eels and shipwrecks and failed space vessels and broken remnants of cities from just decades prior lifted.

Three miles up, the ocean started bubbling. and even the controlling vessel, with all its primitive human technology, was able to hear the great and mighty roar issued from deep below, and the sudden surge of excess water as a mass of impossible magnitude pushed the water aside.

The ocean wasn’t deep enough. The Earth wasn’t wide enough. For there is no place in the world, in the solar system, in the very Universe itself, safe from the rage of a mighty Dragon.

I wrote this in 2019. Now it lives here. The obsession with the sea has no start and no end; it is eternal.
Now I shall eat Leviathan Sushi.

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