Monday, February 20, 2012

Submersible Fiction

by D. Gage

Under the sea there are no waves. There is no rocking back and forth. No heaving up and down. It turns without you knowing, it sinks without telling you.  There is no up and down or left and right. There is only water and darkness and machines and you.
There is no rocking back and forth, no forward to aft, no side to side. But there are lines that take you to chow, lines that lead to ‘pissing in bottles’, lines for loading number 10 cans onboard, lines to talk to supervisors about work, lines to smoke.  There are lines of metal with compressed fluids and gases, falling waste and rising water to the captain’s stateroom two decks above where God gets his coffee and donut every morning served in and on china.

The synthetic mooring lines underway are stowed in the outboard of the side passageway, starboard the nuclear reactor. It’s hot in there and white. It leads to a large engine room that is equally as hot and complicated. It leads to the smoking area in the Auxiliary Sea Water bay, just an old, butt-stuffed coffee can surrounded by pipes the width of a man’s ribcage, pipes covered in foam padding, padding painted sea-foam green. There are large, grey pumps and gauges and valves and dirt and grease and oil and sailors smoking.

Thirty minutes left. I sit in an equally depressing compartment beside a plant that is leaking refrigerant. The fat guy in the blue prison uniform with his name sewn on his chest is laughing at my jokes.  He is probably thinking about his wife or maybe his pickup truck. He wouldn’t tell me if he was. His uniform clashes with the fire-engine red diesel behind him. He doesn’t realize he’s supposed to be wearing the dark blue coveralls, the ones with his name sewn on his chest, like everyone else.

There is no heaving up and down. Not down here.  Only the ribcages of resting sailors, tucked away in their bunks like bags of hot dog buns at the grocery store, heave up and down. Refrigerant doesn’t smell. It has just a hint of oil that mixes with the Freon in the belly of the compressor. Yet, by itself, it’s odorless. It’s heavier than air, too. And so it creeps along the decks and plunges into the deepest bilges where it rises like unattended bathwater.

I scribble a good guess in each column of my logs. I know this place so well. I know the machines; the pressures and temperatures and levels. I breathe in a mouthful of chlorofluorocarbons. My head is swimming. I want to smoke a cigarette. They say the cherry of a cigarette is hot enough to turn Freon into phosgene gas which is a nerve gas that was employed in WWI to kill Nazis. Cigarettes will kill you. I have always known that.

I know the pulse of the crew on the deck plate level, the Ward room, the Control room. I know the crew because I’m a smoker and people in the smoke pit like to gossip; unless a Master Chief is back there smoking a cigar. Then, words are guarded, then it’s Master Chief this and Master Chief that and ‘aye, aye Master Chief’. Brown nosing cock suckers. No one is smoking now, not with this refrigerant leak.

The man in the blue prison uniform is trying to get a suction on the bilge pump. There is too much air in the suction line and the viewing port is dirty. You can barely see the light behind it. Twenty two minutes until I get relieved from watch. I want to smoke a cigarette but I know about WWI nerve gases. I try to put it out of my mind.  I think about chow. It’s late. Mid-watch meals are very predictable; chuck wagon stew and ravioli and left overs, sometimes breaded chicken wagon wheels, never chocolate chip cookies. Those are for lunch on Fridays with sliders and fries. I breathe in another breath of chlorofluorocarbons. My brain is giddy. Mid-watch meals have short lines but no cookies.

The man in the blue uniform has the butt end of his flash light against the steel pipe and his ear on the other end. I can hear the gurgling water as if I were listening in his place. It’s like hearing a heartbeat through a stethoscope. My senses are so magnified now.

I lean back on the gritty deck plate. I think of how dirty the steel deck plate is and how I don’t care because I am one with all this. I am the Zen master of this submersible war machine. My soul is grey and sea-form green. My heart is fire-engine red and hydraulic fluid flows through my veins. My chest heaves though the boat does not.  I rock forward and aft, side to side, though the boat moves undetected. My ears pick up sounds of fluid passing through pipes and it seems like such a supernatural power; the power of a Zen master.

My soul drifts along into bilges, through steel bulkheads, over pumps and pipes and ball valves and gate valves and electro-hydraulic control valves and butterfly valves and check valves, hull valves and back up valves, big valves and tiny little valves and in-between valves. Spend enough time down here and you forget the real world; you forget that valves are not people. Valves and coffee cans and cigarettes and chicken wagon wheels and chuck wagon stew.

“You never told me about your wife,” says the man in the blue prison uniform.

“She has cancer,” I tell him.

“Oh. Is she hot?”

I shrug.

“Do you have a photo of her?”

“No.” I’m thinking about greased ball bearings and Pascal’s law of hydraulic theory, not cancer, not women or wives. The man in light blue uniform grabs a nearby sound-powered telephone, rotates the handle on the side of the box, which sounds like a toy I had as a child, and speaks into the phone.

“Control, machinery room, request permission to secure number one Scrubber.” A pause. “Secure number one Scrubber, aye.” He hangs up the phone.

“Did you shut down the Burners,” I ask.

“Is the refrigeration plant leaking?”

I nod.

“Then, I shut them down,” he replies.

“I need a smoke,” I tell him.

“Go for it. Then I won’t have to listen to you bitching about your wife dying of cancer.”

“I never said she was dying.”

“Oh. I just guessed.”

A heart leaping siren rips through the air. It pauses. “Light smoke in the engine room! Light smoke from the Auxiliary Sea Water bay!” blares over the intercom. The siren kicks in again. Then, “Prepare to emergency ventilate!” Damn smokers are burning down the boat!

 There is no heaving up and down, under the sea. Not unless you’re trying to get to the surface real quick; which we are. The bow of the boat shifts upward as if the planet just tilted and you’re running up or down hill to get to the scene of the casualty depending on its location in contrast with yours.

I’m climbing down to Control. I’m wearing a face mask that plugs into these manifolds in the overhead that give me air to breath. I’m climbing through throngs of panicked sailors who are trying to get on station. The manifolds are taking too long. I hold my breath, disconnect, place my thumb over the nipple of the hose’s end in case of smoke and I make a run for it. I don’t get too far before I’m winded. I plug back in and wish I could smoke a cigarette.

The ship curves and levels and the Fairwater planes on the boat’s sail break the ocean’s surface and smack the surface as the hungry ocean tries to swallow us up again. The boat shutters from the impact. I climb through the aft Egress hatch and into the Control room. It’s rigged for black and the Officer of the Deck is behind the curtain at the periscope.  I can’t see anything. The Officer of the Deck doesn’t see anything through the periscope or he would have called out ‘Emergency Dive’.

I start turning valves, draining sumps and feeling pretty ‘Zen master’ despite the situation. I’m not worried about dying; I’m not thinking about my wife with cancer or anything like that. I’m just here in the moment like a gear or a shaft, spinning, working, doing my job, part of the machine. I deftly make my way to the front of the Control room. “Chief of the Watch, Control is ready to emergency ventilate.”

“Control is ready to emergency ventilate, aye.” Emergency ventilate and ventilate are no different. Not that I can tell, anyway.

We don’t ventilate yet, not without say so from the Captain. I have to ‘stand by’, sailor speak for ‘wait’. I run over the valve ‘line up’ in my head to ensure I didn’t miss any valves. That would cause a casualty and the worst casualties are the ones that go down during another casualty. It’s really a common problem, compounded casualties.

The Fairwater planes slap the surface again and the Diving Officer yells at the junior sailor who is trying to control the ships depth with a steering column that look like it was ripped out of a WW2 bomber. He doesn’t get paid enough to steer a billion dollar war ship but here he is none the less. I think I’m laughing but I can’t tell. The chlorofluorocarbon fumes are still messing with my head.  I black out a second, maybe longer.

“Commence ventilating,” says the Chief of the Watch over the intercom.

I hear the massive steel blower in the fan room behind me scream to life. My ears pop and I feel fresh air on my skin. I can’t smell the air but I bet it smells delicious. Then, suddenly the blower shuts down.

“Aux of the Watch, report to Control!”

I’m already there but they don’t see me in the back of the dark room. Reality sinks in. I just screwed up. I just made everything worse and everyone knows it. My head is light, my feet are numb. I make my way to the front of the room, not so deftly this time.  My heart is beating bunny-rabbit-fast. The hydraulic fluid in my veins is now ice cold.  Valves are not people but just try ignoring them during a casualty aboard a Navy submarine and you’ll regret it.

I’m almost to the Chief of the Watch’s station. The room lights up with multiple hues that paint sailor’s faces with horrifying grins of agony beneath clear plastic masks. My stomach reels. My legs are weak. Things spin. I think of how bad it would be to vomit in this air mask. Colored faces stretch impossibly and begin vibrating and thumping in time with my heart beat. I can almost taste the flavorless chlorofluorocarbons on my tongue.

I fall face first.  

Under the sea there are no waves save the ones men bring with them.


  1. Thank you.
    I am taking a fiction writing work shop in college. That was my first submission for the class.