The Hadal Zone

by Judith Field

The Galapagos Queen rose and dropped in the swell of the Western Pacific. Her crew, ‘The Worldmenders’, launched Operation Hadal after a nuclear operator dumped waste in the Challenger Deep, the lowest point on the earth’s seabed. There would be no more dumping while five oceanographers and I – Rabbi Elaine Ginsberg –  floated above the Deep in The Galapagos Queen.

I leaned over the side of the ship and peered at the waves. I gripped the varnished handrail as the ship rocked, remembering the Sundays I’d spent sanding, scrubbing and painting, helping make the former trawler ready for the voyage. It wouldn’t do to fall in. The others knew I couldn’t swim, and I imagined them struggling to fish me out, if they could catch hold of me.

Haroon called up from the top of the ladder leading down to the cabin they’d converted to a laboratory. ‘OK, we’re ready. Bring it up.’

I pulled a lever on the winding device and the instrument console inched its way out of the water. A mechanical arm swung it onto the deck. It was about the size of a refrigerator, bristling with probes and water samplers.

Seaboy came up the ladder, unhooked the console and removed a bottle ‘I’ll take this down to the lab. What’s for scran? My stomach thinks my throat’s been cut.’

‘Mahi-mahi stew. In about half an hour.’

His face fell. ‘Again? I could fancy a nice bit of rock salmon.’

‘Sorry, that was all Tendayi caught before the storm came.  The nearest shop’s three thousand miles away.’  I smiled at him. ‘I’ll do you some chips.’

#

I stopped the plate sliding off the table. ‘I’ll serve,’ I said. ‘I don’t trust you not to wolf the lot, and we have to save some for Veronica and Tendayi.’ I spooned fish stew into three bowls. ‘Poor them – I don’t see why someone’s got to stand lookout all the time.’

Haroon put his spoon down.  ‘Ever since that incident with the tuna boat, I’ve had to make sure nobody comes after us.’

‘Haroon’s paranoid, we haven’t had any trouble for nearly a year.’ Seaboy reached across and picked up a handful of chips.  ‘But we have to do what he says. He’s the boss. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to stay.’

‘I’ve got to,’ I said. ‘I had to come, soon as I heard about the nuclear dump. We’ve got to care for the planet. We’ve got to defend what God’s created.’ (choose one or the other of these two last sentences.)

Frank rolled his eyes. ‘Here endeth the lesson.’ He dug his spoon into his bowl and loaded it with stew.

‘I mean it, Frank,’ I said. ‘Even if we have to take direct action. And I will fight for it, if I have to.’

‘OK, don’t get off your bike. There’ll be no fighting.’

Haroon sighed, and laid down his spoon (this is just an example, see below).

‘That’s not what the media say,’ he said. ‘They’re still calling us pirates.’

‘We never actually rammed that fishing boat. It was more of a glancing blow,’ Frank said.

‘We scuttled it, though,’ Haroon said. ‘They won’t be catching dolphins any time soon.’

Veronica called down.  ‘Ship ahoy! Crew wants to come aboard.’

‘See?’ Haroon said, jerking his head towards the doorway.  I’ll go and sort this out.’

Seaboy put his spoon down. ‘I’ll come too.’ He clambered up the ladder.

‘And me! Hang on!’ I called after him. The ship jerked to a standstill, as suddenly as though someone had put the brakes on the sea.

In the sections of dialogue, I’d try to split the exchanges up with a bit more external action, rather than just ‘he said’, ‘I said’ back and forth. I’ve added an example above.

All six of us stood looking at the rowing boat pulled up alongside. A shaft of sunlight shone through the clouds onto the boat’s single occupant, a woman in a wheelchair, her legs covered with a red tartan blanket. She looked in her thirties, with long, straight black hair, brown skin and narrow, slanting eyes.

‘My name is Varsha,’ she called. ‘I have come from Guam. I want to join you.  I am afraid I cannot manage the ladder.’

‘Prove you’re not a saboteur,’ Haroon said.

‘Oh, do me a favour and don’t be such a berk,’ I said. ‘Think her wheelchair’s loaded with explosives?’

‘Well, she got here on her own, didn’t she? Guam’s nearly 200 miles away. She could be trying to look the ship over, work out how to sink her.’

‘Let her up. We need to empower local people,’ I said. ‘Swing that winch over.’ I called down to the boat ‘I’m Elaine, I’ll help you up.’

Haroon grabbed my arm. ‘No-’ He looked down at Varsha. Their eyes met. He twitched, as though he had received an electric shock and let go of me. His hand dropped to his side. ‘Help her up.’

I climbed down the ladder and stepped onto the boat.  Varsha’s forehead sloped back, and her chin was more or less non-existent.  The fingers of each hand were fused into two lumps, like lobster claws. What condition caused facial and limb deformities? I shook my head. Difference, not deformity.

Varsha’s smile wrinkled her flat nose ‘Are you going to help me, or just stare?’

I felt my face warm as she strapped the wheelchair into the network of hawsers that had held the instrument deck. Seaboy started the motor and hoisted the chair onto the deck.

‘Your uniform tells me that you are the leader,’ Varsha said to Haroon.

‘What, this?’ he looked down at his t-shirt, which listed a tally of the ships the Worldmenders had sunk, with dates. ‘No leader, we’re all in together.’

My stomach rumbled. ‘We were eating. Will you join us below?’

‘I’m afraid my chair will not negotiate the ladder.’

‘No problem, we’ll eat on deck,’ Seaboy said. ‘It’s mahi-mahi.’

Tendayi looked at the fishing line hanging over the side. ‘Nothing else is biting.’

‘If you cast your line over the other side, you will catch other fish,’ Varsha said.

‘You’ll need a cabin at deck level,’ I said. Like mine, if you don’t mind sharing. I’ll get your stuff out of the boat.’

#

Frank switched on a radio. A news report called us eco-terrorists. Haroon reached across and switched it off.

‘It’s that lot dumping the nuclear waste, they’re the terrorists.’

‘What is it that you do?’ Varsha asked. ‘Why are you here? And what do you hope to achieve?’

‘We go wherever the sea is under threat,’ Seaboy said. ‘We call this Operation Hadal.  The deepest part of the sea, that’s called The Hadal Zone. It’s like an inverted island of biodiversity. And we want to keep it that way. ‘It’s called after Hades, Greek god of the underworld,’ Haroon said. ‘Your lot doesn’t believe in the underworld, do you Elaine?’

‘No, but we believe in saving life. Like we all do.’

Haroon nodded. ‘When we knew we had to save the hadal zone, for once the timing was good. We were at a loose end after the court banned us from going near Japanese fishing boats.  It’s nearly six miles to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, but that doesn’t mean people can fill it with crap. We’re getting water samples, looking for nuclear contamination.

‘We know they’re planning another dump,’ I said. ‘But they won’t be able to as long as we stay put.’

#

That evening, after dining on deep sea angler fish, Varsha and I sat in the cabin.

‘So ugly, but so delicious,’ I said. ‘Who’d have thought those fish would come far enough up to catch? How did you know they’d be there?’

‘My people are the shepherds of the seas. I commanded the fish to gather there.’ She picked up my bible. ‘As it says in this science book, “Let the water teem with living creatures”’.

‘It’s not a science book. It’s a sacred text. Are you religious?’

‘No, I believe in fact and reason. But I find this very interesting.’

‘We call it “Tanakh”. It means ‘Law, prophets and writings.’ Some people call it the Old Testament. I’m a Rabbi.’

‘That is your nationality? I do not know that country.’

‘No, it’s my job. I lead the people in worship.’

‘A priestess?’

‘I’m not a priest.’ The gender-specific designation set my teeth on edge. ‘A rabbi is a teacher.’

Varsha looked at the first page ‘It talks about the sea covering the earth. Is this how you believe the world was made?’

‘No, it’s like a story about science. I mean, God called it all into being, but he used evolution to do it. We have to care for what he made. It doesn’t matter what your faith is, or even if you don’t have one. We’re all part of the earth, of nature. We come from it. We’re earthlings, like Adam who was made from the actual dust of the ground. He comes into it a bit later.’

‘I will do what I can,’ Varsha said. ‘I will help with the weather. It will be set fair for the next three days.’

‘If you can predict the weather, that can’t be bad.’

#

Four days later, the fine weather broke. The ship rolled in another storm. Varsha’s boat, still tied alongside, banged against the side.

I stood in the galley, trying to get the gas ring to light. Haroon put his head round the door. ‘We’ve got to let that rowing boat go,’ he said. ‘It’ll damage the hull. Varsha will have to go back when we do. You gonna tell her?’

‘OK, but I might be a while, if she’s getting dressed or getting into the chair I won’t go into the cabin. She likes her privacy.’

I knocked on the cabin door. ‘Varsha? You decent?’ No reply. ‘We need to talk.’ I turned the handle and stepped inside. Varsha sprawled on the floor next to her bunk, her head sticking out of a tangled mass of blankets. She stretched out an arm towards the wheelchair, lying on its side just out of reach.

‘Elaine! I thank your God. Please help!’

I stood the wheelchair up. ‘Let’s get you back in.’

‘No!’ Varsha grabbed the edge of the blanket and dragged it up under her chin. ‘Just pull me to the chair. Turn your back while I clamber in.’

‘Don’t be silly, you’ll hurt yourself. I promise not to look.’ I knelt and slipped one arm under Varsha’s shoulders, the other under Varsha’s legs, and closed my eyes. Varsha felt lighter than I was expecting, and something writhed under the blanket.

I placed Varsha in the chair, wrapped the blanket round her and opened her eyes. The ship lurched and I fell forwards. I grabbed at the edge of the blanket as the chair slid backwards. A mass of grey tentacles writhed, where Varsha’s legs should have been, squirming as though trying to find purchase on the seat.

My mouth fell open. ‘Varsha, what…are you?’

‘Go and make sure we will not be disturbed.’

I staggered to the door and looked out into the corridor. ‘There’s nobody there.’ I shut the door.

‘I must be quick. There is no time. Not for you.’

I felt my head spin and I flopped onto a bunk.

‘My people speak to me through the storm, my time here is over,’ Varsha said.

‘Your people? From Guam?’

‘We came from beyond the stars when this world was new,’ Varsha said. ‘We live in the seas, in the deepest places. We have had no need to make our presence known.’

‘Why…are you up here? Why now?’

‘We’ve ignored the way you destroy each other, ruin your environment. But you have started to damage ours, and that has attracted our attention. We live in the depths, but we are many. We need more room.’

‘On the land? We will share it.’

‘We could not endure there. No, there will be no land. Why do you think the weather calmed when I arrived? We do not predict it. We control it.’ She raised her arms above her head. A spark cracked between her two hands. Lightning flashed across the sky outside. She clapped her hands. I heard a roar of thunder.

‘Now all will be still.’ She held her hands out in front, dropped them into her lap and slumped. The storm raged.

‘It is no use. I cannot calm the water. They are many and their power is greater. They would use it to extend the seas, with water from above. But I begged them to give you one last chance. I came to find something to show that we can share the world.

I gasped. ‘Please…don’t kill us. We can change. There’s a spark of goodness in everyone. Some people call it God. But everyone’s responsible for the world, we all share a love for it.’

‘I will tell them, but-’

‘The writings say that when God created the first human beings, he led them around the Garden of Eden and said: “Look at my works! See how beautiful they are—how excellent! For your sake I created them all. Do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it.” Tell your people we are sorry. That I, we, beg your pardon.’ I held my head in my hands.

‘Repairing the world is in your grasp. I will tell my people that you repent. I hope it is not too late.’

‘How can I show you that people care? How can we make them take notice?’

‘Your people will find a way. You must.’ She took my hand. ‘I have seen enough here, I have seen your work. I have looked into your hearts. I know that there are ordinary, good people among you. Help me to leave, I can settle the waters long enough for that.’

#

We looked over the edge of the boat onto a smooth sea, extending around twelve feet around the Galapagos Queen. Beyond it, the wind lashed the sea into white capped waves.

‘I’ll get one of the others to lower you into your boat,’ I said.

‘I have no need for the boat now, nor do I want them to see me go. You must put me in the sea.’

‘I can’t use the winch, the others will hear.’ I lifted Varsha out of the chair and leaned over the bulkhead. I stood on tiptoe, leaned over the side and let go. As Varsha clung on, I lost my balance and we plummeted into the sea together.

Panic clutched my throat as I hit the water. I felt my clothes cling to me as I rose to the surface, choking and struggling for air. I lifted her arm above my head, grabbing at nothing. My mouth filled with water and I went under again, down and down into churning helplessness. My legs flailed, trying to reach a firm surface.  Varsha grabbed me round my shoulders and lifted me, pushing my head above the surface.

I gagged, and punched at her. ‘You murderous bitch. Are you starting by killing me, right now?’

Varsha clutched my fist in her hand. ‘I’m saving you. Live.’ I felt warmth rush run into my arms and legs. Varsha let me go. My fear floated away. I swam.

‘And now I will leave you,’ Varsha said. ‘They will forget me.’

Varsha pulled the t shirt over her head. Sea water oozed from the slits gaping like toothless mouths on either side of her ribcage. ‘You must remember me. We will be watching.’ She disappeared below the surface.

Seaboy’s face appeared over the edge of the boat.

‘Lainie, get out. Get the tea on.’ I swam towards the ladder and climbed aboard. ‘Here, I thought you said you couldn’t swim.’

‘I couldn’t. Varsha taught me, just now.’

‘Veronica?’

‘No, Varsha. She was here. She wants us to stop dumping nuclear waste. We’ve got to get the world on our side.’

‘We all want that. You’ve lost it.’ He tapped his head. I managed to stop myself knocking his arm aside. This was a matter of life or death.

‘If you don’t believe me, what’s that boat doing tied to the side?’

He looked. ‘Don’t talk soft, that’s yours. You rowed out on it, from the main ship.’

My throat dried. ‘OK, whose is that wheelchair, behind you? We can all walk, but Varsha couldn’t.’

He frowned. ‘Now you’re getting scary. We use it to push stuff round on. Like Frank, when he’s had a skin full. You must have heat stroke, or something.’

#

The rain started on the day I went home. The Galapagos Queen and her crew stayed over the Deep, monitoring, guarding. I sat at my living room window, looking out at the solid grey sky, writing my first sermon. I posted it on my blog. The people in my congregation told their friends. More people came to hear me. The woman who interviewed me for the newspaper asked me how I’d got started. I told her all about World Repairers. And still it rained.

The seawater challenge.  Everywhere, people being photographed dumping buckets of salty water over themselves. In the rain.

Raindrops splattered against the outside, running down like tears. It had been raining for six weeks. I switched on the TV. More reports of flood devastation, land washed away. A video clip showed a demonstration outside the head office of the nuclear reprocessor, a placard reading ‘do not spoil and destroy My world; for if you do, there will be no one else to repair it

#

Now, it’s been raining for seven weeks, three days. I switch on the radio. A scientist tries to explain how it could possibly be raining in every country, and over the sea, all over the world. A news flash interrupts him, announcing that rising sea levels have contaminated water supplies.  Some islands will have to be evacuated.

My phone buzzes – a video call from Haroon. Rainwater hair plasters his hair to his head. It runs off the end of his nose and splashes onto the screen.

‘We’ve been given twelve hours to move. Or we’ll be boarded and the boat forcibly moved away. But-’

‘I’m so sorry. I’ll bring friends. We’ll come back, we’ve got to-’

‘Shut up, and look. All down to you.’ He turns the phone round. Hundreds of small craft fill the sea. Motor yachts. Sloops, ferries, and barges. Pleasure steamers, from the world of seaside holidays, on the other side of the earth. A Dutch fishing boat, with a name that seems to go all the way round the gunwale. Surrounding the Galapagos Queen. ‘It doesn’t matter if they board us now,’ Haroon says. ‘Others will take our place. Little ships. Like Dunkirk. Only, we’re rescuing the world.’

I see a rowing boat, crewed entirely by men and women in wheelchairs. Haroon waves at it. One of the men waves back. The fingers on his hand are fused into two pieces.

‘I don’t know whether to laugh or cry,’ Haroon says, doing both. ‘Just goes to show, there are good people out there.’

The rain stops.

Judith Field lives  in London. She is a pharmacist, medical writer, editor and indexer. Her writing, mainly speculative fiction, has appeared in a variety of publications, in the USA, UK and Australia. She blogs at http://lunastationquarterly.com/category/columns/the-pen-across-the-pond/.

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