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The Ninth Plague
Depths of the Arabian Sea
380km South-Southwest of Karachi, Pakistan
A shudder rippled down the length of the submerged submarine from bow to stern.
Captain Kurelbataar sat up in his command chair. The barely-there motion made the metallic surfaces on the bridge start to vibrate. A keening noise rang through the air. It sounded like an off-key tuning fork.
It sounded like a ghost calling out in pain.
A handful of seconds, and it went away.
Kurelbataar watched the crewmen around him. Their attention had been pulled off their scopes or instruments. Low murmurs and mutters passed between them.
He didn’t like the sound of that.
“Ha!” he exclaimed. He stood and clapped his hands together. “It sounds like the Chief Engineer finally unblocked the toilets on this damned bucket of rust!”
The captain got a handful of strained laughs in response.
Kurelbataar frowned and motioned to the sub’s Executive Officer. The man shuffled his way over. His uniform was unkempt, as if it had been slept in. Purple-black splotches mottled his grizzled face.
If they were still standing, most of the crew looked as bad as the XO. Or worse.
“You have the conn,” the captain said. “Keep us at this depth and on this course. Notify me when we reach the course waypoint.”
He turned and headed towards the stern of the vessel. He tried to hurry, but the best he could manage was a shambling walk. One of the bruise-like splotches had appeared on his thigh this morning. His leg now threatened to buckle if he put weight on it.
Kurelbataar had grown used to the dull throb of engines old enough to be his grandfather. He’d grown used to the ever-present funk of hot grease, ammonia, and the sweat of sixty crewmen.
But whatever had sent a shiver down his sub’s keel wasn’t something to accommodate.
He entered the next compartment and glared at the objects crammed into the cargo space.
Twin spheres, each as big around as a basketball and made up of oil-slick black hexagons. They sat inside a pair of skeletal steel frames set chest-high to keep them from rolling about.
The spheres’ smooth surfaces were punctuated with a grid of slowly pulsing LEDs. The pale green heartbeats failed to reassure him. They made the devices look as if they were alive.
As if they were hungry.
The sound of footsteps made him look up. The ship’s Medical Corpsman and Chief Engineer approached him each with a grim looks on their faces. Both men were young. They’d been appointed to their roles as their seniors had collapsed at their posts, crying out in pain or simply passing out before expiring hours later.
Yet they also looked as if they were going through their own private hells. Trails of dried blood flaked away from inside the corpsman’s ear canals. The pupil of Chief Engineer’s left eye shrank or dilated on its own accord, making the man randomly squint or tear up in the sub’s dim lighting.
“Captain,” the Chief Engineer said, “We have a serious problem and–”
“Let me guess,” Kurelbataar snapped. “And it’s sure to get worse.”
The man ignored the interruption. “–the latest vibration you felt came from the propeller shaft. We’re getting more frequent power surges, so we run the risk of our batteries burning up before we reach our destination.”
“How great is the risk?”
“At the low end, thirty percent. Maybe as high as sixty. The power system’s been running hot ever since we left port. The maintenance crews can’t keep pace with the problems.”
“The maintenance crews are exhausted,” the corpsman chimed in. “And they’re down by more than half. Either dead, or lingering in their bunks waiting for the end.”
“Are you giving the men anything for what’s afflicting us?” Kurelbataar demanded. “They are dropping like flies all over the ship.”
He got a listless shrug in reply. “All I have are pain killers. Nothing we have seems to do a damned thing.”
“Captain, we have to surface,” the Chief Engineer insisted. “At least let us vent and use the diesels. If our batteries brew over, they’ll fill up the sub with toxic fumes. We’ll suffocate in less than a minute.”
Kurelbataar shook his head. “We’re not surfacing. The word came from on high. If we fail in our mission, then no one is to know of our passing. You knew this before you came aboard.”
“I didn’t know that I’d be dying like a rat stuck in a drainpipe.”
“We all pledged ourselves to Death, in one form or another.”
The captain locked eyes with his two fellow officers, challenging them. The corpsman nodded sullenly. The engineer glared back until his left pupil irised wide open, making him wince and look away.
“I had better get back to my patients,” the corpsman said. He gave a half-hearted salute as he left.
The Chief Engineer didn’t move. He worked his jaw back and forth as he squinted once more at the twin spheres. Kurelbataar waited for him to speak.
“Are these things really worth our lives?” he asked quietly.
“I have seen what is planned. Our lives are a small enough payment for them.”
The two men heard a scratchy pop from the compartment’s overhead speaker. The XO’s voice echoed throughout the ship.
“This is Executive Officer Arban. We have reached the course waypoint and are crossing the Chagos Trench.”
A click as the speaker shut off.
Suddenly, Kurelbataar felt a vibration that ran through the floor and up through the soles of his shoes. Once again, a shudder rippled along the length of the length of his vessel. The keening sound of vibrating metal filled the air.
This time, the vibration didn’t fade away. It grew more violent, setting up a piercing skreeeee of sound that echoed back and forth off the sub’s metal walls. The glass from a nearby gauge cracked with the snap of breaking ice.
“Get to engineering! Shut down the propulsion system!” Kurelbataar shouted, as he turned to head back towards the bridge. Sweat beaded instantly on his forehead as he made his way along the jittering floor panels at a lurching run.
Something deep in the guts of the vessel broke with a metallic SPANG!
The submarine began to tilt, its bow pitching forward as if weighed down by an invisible force. Kurelbataar almost tripped over the prone form of his XO as he reached the bridge. The man groaned and tried to rise, but the rapidly changing angle of the floor made it impossible.
Multiple alarms blared even as the captain grabbed onto the arm of his command chair. Breathing hard, he fought to maintain balance as the deck shifted to thirty, forty, then forty-five degrees. The crewmen around him hung on for dear life, some moaning in fear, others murmuring frantic prayers.
“Shut off those damned alarms!” the captain shouted. “Helmsman, take us up!”
“I can’t, sir!” came the frantic reply. “The bow planes are jammed!”
Kurelbataar racked his brain for a solution. Only one presented itself.
“Blow the ballast tanks!”
A flick of a switch and the vessel’s high-pressure system pushed through the distributing manifold, flooding the tanks with compressed air. The bow stopped its plunge. The sub hung in place as if it were perched atop a great precipice.
But only for a moment.
With a snick, the vents at the top of the ballast tanks flew open.
The air rushed out with a massive whoosh even as it burst the bulkheads along the sides of the tanks. Tons of ice-cold seawater rushed in to replace the air with the force of a fire hose turned on to full blast.
Kurelbataar and his men had enough time for a final scream as the water thundered into their compartments. Those not killed instantly by the rush of water died moments later as the pressure crushed their lungs to the size of clenched fists.
The submarine arrowed down towards the ocean depths. Minutes later, it hit with the impact of a locomotive on the sea floor. The bow split apart, bending the midsection of the sub into a myriad of strange shapes.
A few last streams of bubbles left the wreck as it settled into the surrounding ooze. Yet the abyssal darkness wasn’t complete anymore. From deep within the vessel’s shattered remains came a glow.
Two electronic heartbeats still pulsed a faintly sinister green.
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