As a kid I got into places only a rat would go. The feelings people talk about, the suffocation, the crushing weight, simply didn’t figure. Like I was a mole in a previous life. Long as I had a couple of inches of space in front of my face I felt at home, same as on the surface. Air is air, long as it’s got about twenty-one per cent oxygen, that’s all you need.
The local paper shows me smiling after the firemen got me out of a hole with a winch. I was ten years old.
When I was old enough to enlist in the armed services, I found the ultimate rat-hole; I discovered submarines.
Seventy per cent drop-out rate during training, another twenty per cent go nuts after the first week. The rest of us, we get paid well. The navy knows what we’re worth. Their confined space training was a joke to me.
Modern subs are a picnic, anyway. Some of the older ones are kept up as training classrooms. I spent hours crawling through them from one end to the other, just to feel the confinement. I need it somehow, like those kids who have special chairs which crush them in cushions to calm them down. I call it reducing the walls.
The small spaces push the thoughts back inside your head where they settle tight. Thoughts are best confined like that, I never did like to think too much. What’s to think about? How we got these nuclear subs prowling about on random coordinates, waiting for the order to let go? What’s that worth thinking about for? But that’s the real world, the world the land-huggers don’t know about. They’re just kindling, ready to burn.
We spent days in simulators, one scenario after another. You have to keep on top of what’s real, after a while.
Captain Aarens, he keeps it all running nice. You know where you stand with him. He’s up there and you’re on the bottom of his shoe, but he doesn’t stomp on you because he knows he can’t do it all by himself.
If there’s a pipe to repair he calls me and he just says, ‘Fix it, will you?’ And he expects that it will be fixed, no excuses, because he asked for it. His words turn into action, metal gets welded, engines come back to life. Nothing would dare to disobey.
We like him because he gives structure. That’s all us tube-worms need. The rest is squirming in the dark, because we like the dark, it’s the safest place on earth. No one can get at you here, at the bottom of the sea.
There was a fault in a circuit. We traced it to a loom of wires behind a wall, along with a dozen other service pipes and cables. There was room to get in, but you’d never get out again. I volunteered. They tied ropes to my ankles. The fault was nearly ten metres in. When I got it sorted I gave the signal and they pulled me out backwards with the ropes. I was high as a kite for hours. Captain Aarens called me to the control room.
In a voice like he was reciting the weather report he said, ‘That was well done, seaman, you’ll be rewarded.’ In the same tone he asked me, ‘How do you do that?’
‘Most people go mad in places like that.’
‘Sorry, sir, don’t know how I do it. Always could, is all.’
‘What do you think about when you’re in a hole?’
‘That’s just it, sir, I don’t think much in there. That’s why I like it.’
He stared hard at me for a while, and then he seemed to understand something. ‘Good for you.’ I was dismissed.
There’s a pace on board a sub. It travels the length of the tube like a vibration. Nothing can be hidden for long. The captain was even more abrupt than usual. The radio orders came faster. More drills and sudden alerts. More simulations.
You have to understand we have an odd relationship to our job. Everyone likes excitement, don’t get me wrong. If we’re out on patrol and nothing ever happens we lose interest, so we hope for action. But if we’re ever called to act, and it isn’t just a drill or a passing crisis, it means the world has, effectively, come to an end. Kind of stupid to want it.
We never knew if we would be told what was happening up on top. The world might burn and we’d still be in our tube at the bottom of the sea. But if we ever set free those four sleeping babies in the front quarter, there’s nothing more to be said, anyway.
This is what happened. The order was strange, but when the captain spoke, you followed, automatic.
‘This is Captain Aarens. All personnel, without exception, are to leave their posts and assemble in the briefing room, immediately.’
The room was just big enough. We heard the remote lock click home on the pressure-door. About ten minutes went by. We kidded around.
‘This is Captain Aarens. Seaman Hutchiss will report to the bridge. All other personnel will remain in the briefing room.’
The lock clicked open. I heard it engage again as I walked away, and another sound, like gas hissing in a pipe, but subs are full of sound.
The control centre looked different. It took a moment before I registered what it was. The Captain was separated from me by a screen, like the ones used for security in banks. I never knew there was such a thing in there. And on the other side of him, another screen. He was inside a transparent box, but his voice came through speakers.
‘Seaman Hutchiss, you are one privileged sailor. You are here only because I disobeyed orders. I made an assumption about you, and you can tell me if I’m wrong. Do you get lonely, Hutchiss?’
‘No, sir, I like my own company, mostly.’
Captain Aarens smiled. That really scared me.
‘I thought as much. You can’t go into those pin-holes the way you do if you’re afraid of your own company. We have, let’s see, six minutes before I get busy. I’m going to explain what is happening. Not because I have to. You shouldn’t even be here. But I owe it to you the way a pet-owner owes it to an animal to make the animal’s world at least logical.’
I waited, struck dumb, but not insulted. He was the Captain.
‘Your fellow sailors are dead.’ Like reading the weather again. He paused here, and I swear he took pleasure in watching my reaction. What reaction could there be?
‘Sir, I . . .’
‘Never mind, Hutchiss. I’ll explain. What did they tell you about this job, this submarine. What’s its role supposed to be, in your own words.’
The situation was getting weirder, but the Captain was asking me a question. I shut out what he’d said about the men. Training lets you do stuff like that.
‘We’re the last line of defence, sir. Our location is never divulged, even to our own government, so we’re always there, to retaliate, sir.’ We learnt that by heart on the first day.
‘Okay, partly true. Only it isn’t retaliation.’
He waited. I waited. Something clicked over on the console in front of him.
‘It’s not retaliation, it’s annihilation.’
‘Of the enemy, sir?’
‘Of everybody, Hutchiss.’
Now my guts curled up. I wanted to be back in the tubes, squeezed tight.
‘Are you the God-fearing type?’ he asked, not looking at me.
‘Er, no, sir. Sorry.’
‘You don’t have to apologise, I’m not like that either. There’s a story in the Bible. Full of good stories, that book. A crowd of people are standing around ready to kill a whore. They’re ready to stone her to death. Not pretty. The Lord, you know the one, he says to them, “Whoever is without sin, let him cast the first stone.” He was a brilliant psychologist, that Lord. Should have been a negotiator for the supers. Might not have come to this. You know what? No one threw a stone. They’d probably all screwed the woman, do you see?’
‘Sort of, sir.’
‘Well, where do you find a man to cast that first stone?’
‘I’m not good at stuff like this sir, I just fix things, sir. Sorry.’
‘More of you and less of me might’ve made a difference, once.’
I didn’t know what he was talking about.
‘He has to be free of guilt, seaman Hutchiss.’
‘You’ve lost me now, sir.’ I was beginning to feel real uncomfortable.
‘That man to cast the first stone. He has to be free of guilt. Not sin. There’s a difference. Sin doesn’t matter, but guilt, he has to be without it, likewise remorse, empathy, compassion, kindness. That’s where I come in.’
I knew the Captain was telling the truth about himself, even if I couldn’t believe anyone would admit to what he was saying. He was always straight down the line. I needed to understand something he’d said earlier. ‘Sir?’
‘Yes, seaman, speak easy.’
‘What you said about annihilation . . .’
‘That’s the big word, isn’t it? The one you really have a problem with. Your fellow crew are gone, but it’s the billions of others you will never even meet that worries you. You’re not just a mole, you’re a lone mole, like the solitary animal which lives in the dark. Some of them are blind, because they no longer have use for eyes, can you believe that? I judged right.’
‘I’m kind of simple, that’s what they say of me, sir.’
‘You’ll understand this, these are my orders: If unfettered nuclear war is declared, I am to immediately launch the four missiles on this boat. The targets were pre-determined, years ago.’
‘How . . . I don’t understand . . .’
‘The other side will do the same with their sub-based missiles.’
Now I was completely lost.
‘Only a little time left, Hutchiss. Listen, the people who set up these submarines weren’t out for retaliation or revenge. They knew that if nuclear weapons were ever actually used, then the people who built them, and we are all complicit, didn’t deserve a future. We had failed. For all time, for good.’
‘Your job, sir, it’s to finish it off?’ I felt nothing. It wasn’t real.
‘Completely. And that’s whether you believe anything I’ve said, or not.’
I had to believe him. He was the captain, after all, only it didn’t quite sound right, on the numbers.
‘But four missiles, or a dozen, that wouldn’t be enough, would it?’
‘Our side has two subs, they have the same. That’s sixteen warheads. But they’re not designed to obliterate. Their job is to sterilise. These are the dirtiest bombs ever devised. Stuff with a half-life to make Little-Boy and Bikini Atoll and Maralinga look like a few puffs of smoke They don’t tell you that in training. They’re more than enough to do the job.
It’ll take a hundred million years before life can get going again.’
I stared at the man in his transparent box. I thought about whether I should get a weapon and put him down. He knew.
A sideways glance was all he gave.
‘These barriers are impervious to anything but a direct, major explosion, and that would trigger the missiles anyway, at this point.’
‘Why am I here?’
‘You interest me, seaman Hutchiss. Anyone who can keep sane in the kind of places you’ve crawled into must have a very limited imagination. That isn’t your fault. Nor is it anything to be ashamed of. It’s also part of why you can stand your own company, as we’ve already established. If you were the lonely type you’d be a screaming mess. What’s it like not to think much about things?’
‘I’ve always been just me, sir, so I can’t explain.’
‘Well answered. We’re all just ourselves, nothing else.’
‘What do you want from me?’ I noticed with surprise that I’d finally dropped the ‘sir’. The possibilities didn’t look good.
‘I only want you to remain alive as long as you choose. When you opt out, I’ll know it’s time to go, too. You’ll have the greatest tolerance for the solitude to come. Better than me. You’re like the atmosphere monitors on this sub. The old canary down the mine-shaft trick. When you go under, that’s the signal.’
He was playing with me, but it didn’t feel malicious, just business-like. That was the Captain. I understood, then, in a moment.
No one else could initiate the final sequence.
‘You’ll have a good time, and the means to a peaceful end. The whole aft quarters of the sub is yours, and we have a supply of the best designer drugs on the planet. Nirvana, in effect. I’ll be up front, but you won’t see me, and there are no more regulations. It would be meaningless.’
‘The others . . .’
‘There are no others.’
Lights and warning signs came on. He took a key from his breast pocket and opened a panel on the control desk. From the compartment within he removed a device like one of those hospital buzzers, connected by a lead. In one hand he held it out in front, with his thumb over the button. So help me it was a red button. There must have been a countdown, as he watched the console.
He said, ‘I throw that first stone, seaman Hutchiss, and it will be all of those hundred million years before something else crawls out of a cave and picks up another one.’
The whore he spoke about, she was hooded, so they didn’t have to see her face. She was kneeling, head bowed, just waiting, because there was no more hope. The way things are. The world made by others.
I’d heard the sound before, during a training exercise. We’d fired off a dummy missile. Some of the men pissed themselves. I just got high. It was a sound and a vibration like all the locomotives in the world at once, but that was nothing. In the warhead there was enough power to make all those locomotive engines look like a toy train.
Then he pushed the button again.
A man who looked a lot like the Captain threw a stone, accurately, from behind the crowd. It hit the woman in the head, real hard, and she fell forward, without making a sound. Only she wasn’t dead, ‘cause she moved like a wounded slug, a dark hood for a head and a shapeless robe behind.
Every surface in the submarine was vibrating. The hydraulic effects as the missiles pushed their way through the water was something no computer programme could simulate. The sub felt like it was being twisted into a spiral. And there were two more to go. I stood there the whole time and watched an insane man, my Captain, wait for the countdown and push the red button. I hadn’t been dismissed, so I waited.
The stones came thick, now, because the hysteria took over and no one had to feel like they were the one doing the deed. Someone else had gone first. Still she moved, just a little. The man who looked like the captain came up close to her, with a big rock in his hand. It was shaped like a submarine, dripping with water. He hurled it right at her head. Impossible to survive. He kicked at her, but she didn’t move. People already began to drift away. They were never there, if the question was asked.
When it was over, Captain Aarens spoke again. A little wearily, it seemed to me.
‘You’re free,’ was all he said.
One side of the transparent cage lifted, and he walked away. That was the last time I saw him. No more whores to kill.
The place where she’d been was all cleaned up of blood. The stones scattered around.
Ready for next time.
The Lord, he wasn’t to be seen. They’d kill him too, if they had a chance.
I eat well. All the best stuff is mine for the taking. I cook silver service meals and eat them alone. There’s always enough, in case the Captain comes for dinner. It’s been two months. He hasn’t come.
The ship’s self-generating air supply can last for years, especially when there’re only two of us. I disposed of the bodies of the other men. They’d been gassed, and didn’t even know what hit them. He was right, I don’t need them.
Not that I’m proud to say that.
I thought about that Lord the Captain spoke of. I guess I could pray to him for the Captain’s sake, but I think any self-respecting Lord would have gone to some other place by now. Even just to save his reputation.
I’m getting into every space on this boat. Even devised a system for hauling myself out automatically from the tight spots.
I haven’t touched the drugs the Captain left in the kitchen. Not sure why I’d need them. I spend most of my time in the tubes and bulkheads. Reducing the walls. It keeps the thoughts compressed into a little knot inside my head. I’m not scared of the loneliness. Thinking is what scares me.
This is one hell of a simulation.