Ava Jimenez slipped silently through the empty passageway, pausing at each bulkhead to listen. She could hear the steady click of the red emergency light turning on and off, and the groan of metal as the ocean's deep-sea pressure squeezed the hull of the submarine. Sweat beaded on her forehead and upper lip. Her black hair was pulled in a messy ponytail. She'd dressed in a hurry, putting on a deep red tracksuit and sneakers, when the call had come over the comm.
The drawn-out words had slithered ominously through the small speaker in her quarters, waking her immediately. At first, she'd thought she'd been dreaming, as she lay in her berth staring up at the bunk above her. But then the low, raspy voice returned.
Ava was on her feet immediately, reaching for her clothes. She tried to rouse her crewmates on the comm's private channels, but no one answered. Quickly and quietly, she left her quarters, going directly across the passage to the captain's stateroom.
It was empty.
Tension corded her shoulders as she made her way to the room next door, where the XO bunked. His room was empty, too. Across the hall, one of her co-leaders of the expedition had a room. It was empty. The top scientist's room. Empty. The navigator's room. Empty.
Ava tried not to let panic engulf her. Her crewmates couldn't have vanished, especially on a submarine. There wasn't anywhere to hide.
She moved cautiously along the narrow corridor, stepping over the bulkhead between sections. Doors gaped open like darkened maws, the red lights flicking on and off, casting an eerie glow over pipes, machinery, and the rows of empty bunks in berthing. The entire crew was missing.
Swallowing past the lump of fear in her throat, Ava crept toward the lab. Beakers, test tubes, microscopes, and an array of scientific equipment crowded on the tight counters in the small area. Plexiglas containers filled with ocean water held specimens brought up from the deep-sea trench: a fangtooth fish, tube worms, the remains of a vampire squid. In one of the containers, the churning water had turned inky black. Moving closer, she stared into the darkness, trying to determine what had been brought aboard.
A human face suddenly appeared.
"Releeeease meeeee," it said within the container and over the comm.
With a shriek, Ava stumbled backward, crashed into the metal lab table, and knocked over an experiment in progress. She didn't stop to clean up the mess, spinning on her heel and sprinting further down the passageway toward the rear of the sub. Her breath came in panicked gasps, her heart thundering in her ears. Her eyes searched wildly for someone - anyone - to appear and tell her none of this was real, that she was having a nightmare.
That she hadn't seen her own face looking back at her in that container.
She stubbed her toe on the metal lip of the bulkhead as she reached the last compartment. Not pausing, she shoved the bulkhead door closed behind her and spun the wheel. She was in the decommissioned torpedo room that had been converted into a pressurized diving chamber for retrieving specimens by deep-sea robot. The red, blinking light flashed against the curve of the closed hatch of the wide tube welded to the floor. Monitors displayed the status of the pressure and video from cameras that had been mounted around the bottom of the chamber outside the sub, to ensure the specimen retrieval robot was fully inside before closing the outer hatch.
Floating in the ocean on the video monitor, illuminated by the powerful lights attached to the sub, were the bodies of her crew.
Terror strangled Ava, rationality choked by the base need to flee. She smacked the button that would reseal the outer diving chamber and watched the monitor as the pressure balanced. She couldn't stay here. She had to get out of there. She needed to escape before that thing with her face got her.
Ava cranked open the hatch and scrambled over the lip of the diving chamber. She pulled the lid shut, submerging herself in four feet of pressurized ocean water. Her body shook from fear.
The countdown ended on the pressure monitor and the computer automatically flushed the diving chamber.
Ava was released.