11. Swim (D2)

With his mind lost in thought, he didn’t even feel the trip. One second he had been outside the parlor with his head sunk in misery, the next he was in the gargantuan floor that housed the welcoming stores of Galapagos 3, his ego lost to the clouds.

He trailed toward engineering, all the while keeping his eyes on the flickering light around the big welcome gates where Zoe’s dead body rested behind. It was the last place he wanted to go. She hadn’t deserved to die like she had. If only she hadn’t been so clumsy she might have made it. He had tried.

She had been a good girl, someone who shared his view of striving toward the top until you saw it through. He had respected that. Most people sit around hoping someone will come along and lick their assholes clean for them instead of doing what needs to be done.

Shame she hadn’t run fast enough.

He entered engineering and took the shortest path to the airlock. It felt a smoother trip now that he didn’t have to wait for anyone else or stop every few seconds.

He smirked as he thought about severing a male member and having Patricia try to scan it without realizing it. He wished he had thought of it earlier, left her with a surprise. It’s not like it mattered now, though. He was getting out of this place. It was clear who would get the last laugh.

He closed the airlock behind him and made his way to the closest suit. As he strapped into it, he began to have second thoughts. There was a chance that the pods would be completely flooded internally or damaged from the explosion. He could get lost out there in depths, left to wander until his air ran out and he became fish food. He had never liked the idea of suffocating to death. It had to be one of the worst ways to die. 

With the exploration suit on, he placed himself on the suit machine and allowed Nee to check the suit for any defects. She prompted him to put on a helmet to complete the scan, forcing Jimmy to go locker to locker in search for one. After finding the only one available, he wondered if drowning would be worse. Filling up your lungs with water over nothing, they both had to be equally as bad.

He placed the helmet over his head, cursing himself for allowing all of the worst thoughts to enter his mind right before his trek. He had yet to fail in his life, the odds were all in his favor. If he had been a natural at everything else he had ever touched, it meant he would be a natural at this as well.

He looked around the room, trying to get used to having a large section of his vision covered. As Nee connected to the suit, a faint light came on within the helmet making it very difficult to concentrate on anything but the light. He cursed the idiot who had thought it a good idea to place it there instead of focusing on outer lamps instead.

“Is there a way we could shut this light off inside my helmet?” he asked, sitting back down onto the suit machine.

“It is not recommended,” said Nee.

“I don’t care, I want this fucking light off,” he said as the Nee began to scan him with the machine’s help. It made a noise like escaping air as it sealed the helmet to the suit and refilled the small tanks of oxygen. He felt bad for snapping at Nee as he watched the light within the helmet slowly dim down until it completely disappeared. He knew he was just nervous, but that didn’t mean she deserved it. “I’m sorry Nee.”

“It’s alright James. These are not regular circumstances,” said Nee.

The pressure within the suit was regulated and he began to hear almost nothing outside of his own bubble. It was similar to having his ears plugged. The sound of his breathing was intensified along with the beating of his heart and any shuffling within his suit. He found it slightly disorienting, even terrifying, but only because of the current circumstances. Under regular ones, he might even enjoy this, but there was no enjoying the feeling of being able to tell if he was being snuck up on.

He walked toward the airlock chamber and manually ordered the airlock open. The three loud rings caused goosebumps to form over his skin. It felt like a warning to rethink his current choice of action.

He had thought about it for too much time in food storage already, he wasn’t going back to that.

The doors began to unseal and slowly break apart like a cracked egg until he was left standing in front of the small oval entrance. His nerves were going wild, his mind stuck on the idea that he would die out in the depths, alone, with no one to ever know or be able to recover his remains. Jimmy loved silence and seclusion, but this was neither of those things. He was leaving one monster behind to join another.

He felt the bottle of painkillers press on his side as he turned back toward the stun baton. The decision was made for him in an instant. He shimmied his arm out and into the body of the suit, letting the arm of it flop around. With his other hand he pressed it against his body and held the bottle in place as he unsealed it and withdrew the last pill. He opened his visor and felt the mental relief wash over him, followed by the physical one.

He rocked back and forth with his eyes closed until he felt composed once more. He stuffed the bottle into his pocket, raising his nose as the realization that he would be needing to release any bowel movements within his suit.

He shimmied his hand back through the suit arm and spent a second making sure it was comfortable again. He picked up the stun baton and stepped into the airlock without thought. He wished things could be like this all the time. Without question or worry, always certain of a course of action. Like the image he had made everyone around him think he lived by.

Jimmy pressed the button labeled ‘flood/drain’ and was prompted to do so two more times. At least their safety measures had held up until now.

“James,” said Nee, “are you sure about this?”

“Not one bit,” he said, smiling at the thought of her caring enough to question his decisions for him. He pressed the button twice again and the ringing that had brought goosebumps returned, this time accomplishing nothing but preparing him for what was to come.

The door sealed with a loud metal knock, making him wonder how much louder it would have been without the helmet on. He looked toward the entrance of the depths and saw the water begin to flood the chamber. Slowly at first, but soon more spouts flowed through the openings.

“Nee,” he said, bringing up his left arm.

“Yes James?”

“Play your favorite song please,” he said.

The water was up to his knees when the music started. A gentle tune from days much before his time, one that his mother had remade into a masterpiece. He wasn’t sure why she had picked it out as her favorite but he was glad she had. She was involved in his life, even if it was the part he wanted nothing to do with. It played within his helmet, helping drown out the crashing that would drown him if he let it.

He had expected the water to lick him with an ice-cold tongue before the suit could regulate it but it had been as if the temperature change had been predicted ahead of time and had instead created a seamless transition. The pressure, however, had not.

When the water reached his chest, he began to feel two big hands squeezing his head and body together in an attempt to mold him into liquid. The suit beeped loudly over the music, sending an uncomfortable shock through his muscles with every deafening beep. He fought to keep his eyes open, scared that if he closed them he would never be able to see again. His stomach turned and the nausea set in making him feel sick and disoriented. Everything spun in a breathless ride.

He contorted his neck as he gasped desperately for air. The water was at eye height now and he could make out the tiny creatures entering the room, slowly swimming toward him. He tried to move away but the beeping in his helmet had become unbearable. It felt like he was being struck repeatedly on both sides of his head, causing him to twitch involuntarily.

The gentle tune had become more of an auditory torment. His mother’s voice vibrating against his ear drums, reminding him of the pain he deserved for his lack of talent. He could see the small dagger-like teeth of the sea creatures preparing themselves to feast when all resistance was depleted from Jimmy. They swam around his head, taunting him. He could hear the suit trying hard to regulate the pressure within but failing. Short bursts of gas released in his helmet, adding to the already unbearable array of wretched symphonies playing.

He didn’t want to die like this. He couldn’t understand how the suit had malfunctioned. Why couldn’t he had just stayed behind and rode it out like he had originally planned? He didn’t deserve this.

Jimmy sunk to his knees and screamed.

Everything stopped. The beeping, the gas hiss, the pressure, all gone. Even the tiny creatures were absent. Only the gentle tune played within his helmet as he kneeled in the chamber floor in front of the open entrance to the vast darkness he had seen coming down the transport elevator.

Jimmy tried to slow his breathing as he realized he had been gasping desperately for air, cursing himself in the process for wasting the limited oxygen he carried. He focused on the melody. It almost sounded like the song had begun all over again but there was no way it could have, unless it was looped from the beginning.

Nee had to have replayed the song while he had been disoriented by the pressure. He had been in there for enough time to experience the pressure. He wanted to ask her, to find out why she would torture him furher but he knew he would not like the answer. 

He forced his body up, adjusting to the foreign environment as fast as he could. He felt heavy, like an astronaut in the midst of space. The water pushed against him making his movements difficult and drawn out. He stepped toward the airlock exit and stood at its edge, taking in the small amount of nature the bright lights outside the door allowed his eyes to see. Past that, there was nothing but darkness. 

He didn’t know what awaited him out there.

“I don’t like this James,” said Nee’s voice through his helmet. 

He gripped the baton tight and stepped out, ready to find out. “Neither do I,” he said, feeling the words tear at his nerves.

“You can still go back,” said Nee.

“You wouldn’t understand,” said Jimmy. He slowed his pace as he neared the end of the illumination provided by the station.

“I would hate for you to die,” said Nee as he stepped past the light and into the pitch black abyss. It sent chills through him, making him feel as if she knew what was to come.

“Real fucking motivational,” he grumbled. He tapped the side of his helmet, trying to get his exterior lights to come on. “Can you turn on my lights?”

In a moment, the lights began to flicker on and off, creating a disturbance in the usual darkness of the sea. It made Jimmy even more on edge. He could see shadows looming ahead as if waiting for him to get closer. He hit his helmet impatiently, as if somehow it would help steady the lights but all it managed to do was shut them off entirely and leave him once again without sight.

“Nee?” he said into his lifted arm after trying to hit the helmet a few more times.

“One of the lights is malfunctioning and draining power from the other,” she said. “Would you like for me to reroute power?”

Just my fucking luck. “Go for it,” he said as he stood in place and used his untrained stabilizing muscles to keep the water from moving him around.

He couldn’t believe he had ever actually enjoyed a place like this. He should have been able to see it for the death trap it was. People weren’t meant to live down in the depths, hell, they weren’t supposed to live in many places, but they loved to impose themselves anywhere they could. The supreme beings that know it all.

“Is everything ok?” he asked, feeling vulnerable from standing in the same spot for so long. Patricia had said that there were no fish or other creatures down here, but just because they hadn’t seen them didn’t mean they weren’t lurking about. The white knight had been around them this entire time and none of them had known. “Nee?”

“One second James,” she said as he felt water rush around him and nearly push him down. He turned his head toward where he felt it originate but could see absolutely nothing. He squeezed the baton tight enough to feel his forearm begin to warm. He felt the water rush from the opposite direction with enough force to topple him to his knees. His heart began to pound.

He should have listened to Nee. He should have just gone back when she had suggested it. He kept turning his head in every direction, telling himself he would be prepared for anything. He looked toward the direction of the airlock, its lights off in the distance. They had seemed so bright up close, now they just appeared like a distant dream.

“All done,” said Nee before a single light flickered on and off until it found its balance and its glow began to strengthen.

He turned his head and saw the massive teeth of whatever had been swimming around him, its mouth opening impossibly wide next to his head. Jimmy gasped and squeezed his eyes shut, his legs pushing back away from danger and causing him to trip. His baton came up in a slow, blind swing, the snapping of electricity loud enough to break through his helmet’s barrier as his finger made contact with the button. He waved it back and forth as his body pulled him slowly down to the ground.

He listened to the baton shriek its threats until Jimmy finally built up the courage to open his eyes. The bright blue and white electricity branched out, illuminating its immediate surroundings and demanding his eyes focus on only that. It was almost as if it were sucking the light away instead of producing it.

He released the button and pulled his arm back. He checked all around him, as far as his lamp could illuminate, and found no sign of anything. 

“You’re sick,” he heard his grandfather’s voice say. “Sick and worthless.”

“Are you alright?” came Nee’s voice.

Jimmy shook his head of thoughts. “Fine,” he said. He wondered if she was more concerned of him dying out here because of him, or because it would leave her out here, all alone.

The path was easier now with the light on but it seemed like he made no progress. Each time he turned around to gauge the distance, the lights near the airlock appeared no smaller. He would tell himself he would not check again, but like a runner on a treadmill, their eyes always come back.

Each step became more difficult. His mind grew weary of the lack of progress but he knew he could not go back. He didn’t need Patricia or anyone else. He had always, and would always, accomplish everything on his own. If he died he would do so on his terms too. Not collecting fingers for some woman who had already given up.

He was nothing like them, he was more. This would finally prove it. Millions of people stuck down here and he was the only one to make it out. The world would rejoice him as a genius. A tradesman who outsmarted the top scientists, engineers, billionaires and artists of the world. What did any of their accomplishments matter when they couldn’t even accomplish to keep their life? People would flock to him, want him, look up to him. Only this time, he wouldn’t have to pretend to be someone else.

He sneered at the thought. He would finally be the king he deserved to be. Atop his throne, he could look down at all the paintings he had privately struggled countless hours with in an attempt to please his parents and set them ablaze. Force his parents to watch as the paint burns and drips down like blood dripping off their fingers. They would call it a sacrilege, cry as if a loved one were dying in their arms. He knew them all too well. They would curse him, lie to him claiming they had always been proud, try to convince him that his artwork was magnificent so he could build up confidence to show the world and have it all be torn from him.

Not again.

He would show them it was his world. They would abide by his rules. The ones with power create the path, his grandfather had shown him that, but he had never had the opportunity to show him how much or what kind of power Jimmy would need. 

Everything Jimmy had done had been a waste of time. Sports, money, trade skills. It had gotten him temporary power, but not the kind that would last. Not the kind that would pave the path. He was still abiding by their rules which meant they would continue to watch him and listen. Try to catch him red handed and disprove his worth. Label him crazy like that bitch Lumis had assigned to him had tried to do.

She had been the crazy one in the end.

A small mound of rock blocked his path. Jimmy checked behind him only to see he had made nearly no progress. His fingers twitched from frustration. His oxygen would run out way before he ever had a chance to make it out to the pods.

He raised his arms over his helmet and breathed deep.

“I am reading a change in your system,” said Nee. “Is everything alright?

It had to be her. They were using Nee for their dirty work. It was against her will but it was her nonetheless. She would pit him to fail so that they could laugh at him but he would prove them wrong.

“Fine,” he said.

He faced the mound and found a spot to dig his boot into, beginning his ascend over it. He had thought he had grown accustomed to the movement but the climb felt unstable. He struggled up, his feet unable to keep his balance well.

It took ages to reach the top but as he pulled his head over the mound his attention was drawn by a lone white anemone swaying around atop the structure of the city. It was far but it stood out among the manmade structure that surrounded it. 

Jimmy swallowed down a breath. He squinted, one side of him telling him to run back as fast as he could while the other to observe the swaying tendrils like a curious boy at the zoo. Returning back to Patricia would do nothing but waste his time. He was a one man crew that didn’t need to be slowed down. Besides, he was out in the deepest part of the ocean, sea anemones were bound to be everywhere.

He shouldered his way up over the mound, keeping his eyes on the swaying tendrils just in case. He was determined to make it. He did not need to waste any more of his valuable time in this place. He needed to get back and become the rule maker.

A long vertebrae-like tendril slithered out from the rest. As far as it may have been, the light reflected from it perfectly, making the familiar sharp edges gleam for Jimmy. He froze, dread spiking his adrenaline. All thoughts of continuing on disappeared and only one remained.

Run.

He tried to lower himself from the mound but his shaky fingers caused the dirt to break loose sending him tumbling down faster than he expected. He landed on his back with a thud, his helmet light shining bright, far up into the abyss. A whip of electricity resounded through the water.

“Fuck!” he screamed as he desperately lifted his bulky gloved finger from the baton. He smacked the helmet button to shut off the light, afraid that the creature had seen both. There was no way it hadn’t. He had stared right at it, alerted it of his presence. He should never have come here. “Nee, please! Turn off the goddamn light!”

It all went pitch black.

He turned his trembling body over and boosted himself up. His muscles felt foreign to him, unable to obey him in the way he was used to. He tried desperately to run but the water made everything impossibly sluggish. He stumbled over the unstable surface every few steps but his mind stayed focused on the lone bright dot that now appeared so far off in the distance.

It had seemed so close just moments before. Was this Nee’s doing? Was there a lens inside his visor she had been purposely adjusting to play a vicious trick on him? Was she trying to show him how Roberts and Zoe had felt when all hope had been pulled away?

Their salvation had been right there in front of them, but he had been too cowardly to do anything.

“Nee, my interior light. I can’t-” he stumbled over loose dirt, sending him to his knees. The light came on and he did not hesitate to push himself back up and keep going. It was just enough light for him to see the path but disorienting still.

He wanted to turn and look behind but had no intention of giving the creature any more opportunity. He could already feel it at his heels, waiting for the right moment to squeeze his legs together like it had with Roberts. Stop Jimmy in his tracks as it enshrouded him with the rest of its tendrils and rip him apart worse than any of the corpses inside the city. It wanted Jimmy to feel safe so it could enjoy the kill. It’s what Jimmy would do.

Make them comfortable and think he was gone for good. That it was ok they had been abandoned and they could move on with their lives only to have him randomly resurface and send them down a spiral. There was no surviving it. Their desire to prove their worthiness to him was stronger than any conclusions they had determined to be done with him. They would never be able to resist.

He glanced over his shoulder, as much as the helmet would allow, and saw nothing behind him. He kept on at full speed. He couldn’t let himself get overconfident. He would not let himself die.

The annoying light within his helmet began to flicker. He could finally see the clear outline of the exterior airlock lights. He tapped his helmet. He couldn’t afford to continue tripping over every rock or loose patch.

Come on, he thought to himself, just a bit longer.

He felt his foot get snagged over something, sending him down. He spat out a curse as he lifted his head and crawled toward the light. He positioned his foot firmly and pushed himself up only to feel a gust of rushing water flow him forward and back onto the sea floor. His light shut off entirely. He stayed on the ground, begging. Praying to no particular god to let it be only a fish.

He gripped the stun baton tighter and tilted his head up to concentrate on the ring ahead. He was close, just a few meters more. He could see the details of the airlock waving him welcome. He had made a shit plan, it was not beneath him to admit it to anyone. He would gladly do it if he was allowed to make it. Just a few meters.

He stood, not daring to look anywhere but at the gates of salvation ahead. If he didn’t see it, it wasn’t there.

He felt another swirl around him causing Jimmy to spread himself out to not get thrown to the floor again. As soon as he regained his balance, he ran. The unlit surface made his progress slow. His uncontrolled breathing made it a blur. He didn’t know what was happening but could hear the cracking whip of the baton. The whole world could be watching him but he couldn’t care less. The airlock was close.

He stepped over the ring of light and saw his suited boot illuminated by the light. Over his boot, a group of vertebrae wrapped around like a spiraling rope.

Jimmy’s heart sank. His eyes went wide and he gulped down the clog in his throat. He wanted to keep walking, ignore it, hope it was only his crumbling mind playing tricks on him but he could feel that this was no hallucination. He watched it unwrap itself from his leg as if it knew it had finally found the right moment.

Jimmy stood perfectly still, frozen with indecision. He felt the tug of the vertebrae tail as it slithered under his pit and shone its sharp tip in the edge of the light. He felt his bladder quiver and before he knew it, the warm release of urine trickled down his legs.

He didn’t care that they were watching.

WIthout thought, his body turned and shoved the baton into the massive outline in the darkness. He felt pressure explode through the right side of his abdomen, sending waves of lava through his body. An alarm echoed louder than his thoughts. He squeezed the baton button and sent the deep blue light into whatever it had been dug into. A loud shriek pierced through the helmet and made him contort his face as he looked up into the gargantuan figure. Its tendrils covered his vision, not letting him see what it looked like, but enough to know that it towered over him and he did not want to see.

He kept the button pressed tight until he felt whatever had dug through his side wiggle out like a serrated blade being sawed free. All at once he felt a blow of ice push all his breath out as his eyeballs bulged from their sockets and his ears popped like quickly inflating tires. A sharp ring exploded through his head drowning all other sound out. He squeezed his eyes shut in an attempt to subdue the pain and keep his eyes from escaping.

The unbearable cold flooded down into his suit legs, causing his skin to prickle. His free hand pressed into the suit opening without thought but seemed to do nothing to help. He was unable to breathe, unable to think until the shriek returned again, blowing through the ringing in his ear and reminding Jimmy of what had caused this.

Something hit Jimmy in the chest and sent him through the water with such force that everything went black. He felt his body slam to the ground, his head flinging backwards and feeling as if its’ contents had bounced like a basketball.

If not for the excruciating pain he was already in, he would have passed out. Instead, he felt the suit crumple inward at the breach, seizing the massive pressure that would have burst him from the inside and leaving him half frozen and bleeding within his suit. He did the first thing his body could. 

Puked.

His stomach clenched tight and he wretched up into the helmet. He twisted his side as he felt the pain from his torn abdominal muscles attempting to function like normal.

“James!” he heard Alice scream.

Jimmy didn’t hesitate. He shouldered himself over, feeling the ice water mixing with his vomit and slosh around inside as his interior suit tried desperately to keep his body from freezing. He squeezed the baton only to realize it was no longer there. He didn’t bother to look back and just began crawling.

Each movement was as if a dull machete was hacking at his side. His muscles felt stiff, like corroded cogs and he had to force his knee up, biting hard through the pain, as he tried to stand.

The airlock was close. Hope built up in his mind as quickly as blood dumped from his side. There was no way to tell which would be done first. He begged that his weakening body would push through for just a few more steps. He was close. He was going to make it, this was his chance.

His legs wobbled with each step he took, threatening to drop him if he did not give them rest. He didn’t know where the creature was but rest would come later. For now, his legs needed to obey, and obey they did.

As he reached the airlock release button, his legs gave and he fell to his knees. He slammed the button with shaky hands until the doors slid open and he crawled inside. His body began to shut down as his mind pleaded with it to help him seal the door.

His body dropped and without pulling his arm up he croaked, “Seal it.”

He let his eyes close. He didn’t know how he hadn’t passed out already. Maybe he truly was a different breed of human after all. 

He felt his skin growing more numb. He adjusted himself causing the searing pain to pierce through his side and he clutched it tight. The chill of the water, piss and bile in his suit slushed around making him realize how badly his teeth had been chattering. He needed to get out of the exploration suit so his body suit could regulate his temperature properly.

He opened his eyes and saw the doors to the abyss wide open. He desperately tried to turn over but found his body had no more intention of responding. He kept his side clutched and kicked away with the leg that still gave. He only needed to reach the manual controls. He tried to yell to Nee but his voice was weak, so shaky that only unintelligible mumbles escaped him. He kept his hazy vision on the abyss. Tiny creatures like the ones he had seen earlier swam across the open doors, taunting him, bearing their teeth and licking their lips, ready to eat the remains that were left behind.

Bright lights spun in the room. Jimmy let his head tilt back and watched as they danced to a silent tune. He turned his head enough to see the gates on the airlock slowly close and let his head drop back completely. His body continued to shiver violently as he stared up at the lights. The water began to lower from the top of the room. He felt a huge release as the pressure inside his head and body began to escape. 

He closed his eyes and smiled.

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