Welcome to the tenth of twelve. For those who don’t know, my New Year’s resolution this year was to write one short story per month and post it to my blog on the last Wednesday of each month. This month’s story is entitled “Moonlight”. Enjoy!
Also, because it has central importance to the story, here is a recording of the song “Clair De Lune”.
“Depth at one-point-seven kilometers and increasing.”
Thomas Haskins flailed at the holographic controls, but to no avail. The malfunctioning thrusters had sent it flying headlong into an oceanic trench. No one was sure how deep it was, and Thomas wasn’t exactly keen on finding out.
“Depth at one-point-nine kilometers.”
Thinking quickly, he ripped the harness off his chest. He flew out of his seat and would have crashed against the main window of the pod if he hadn’t managed to grab hold of the armrest.. Thomas began pulling himself toward the back of the pod, using handles placed along the walls. He had to work fast…he had no idea how much time he had before he reached the bottom.
And it wouldn’t be the impact that killed him. No…the pressure would crush the pod long before that.
“Depth at two-point-two kilometers.”
He swiped his hand in front of a small circle in the far wall. Almost immediately, an amber-colored hologram spat out, detailing a whole list of systems for the pod.
“Depth at two-point-five kilometers.”
Shut up, shut up, he thought to himself as he swiped through the different menus. At last, he found “propulsion”. When the wireframe schematic of the submersible popped up, he spotted the issue. The switcher valve that was responsible for turning the thrusters on and off was broken, trapping the thrusters in an active state.
“Depth at two-point-nine kilometers.”
“Son of a bitch,” he grumbled out loud. The pod was still picking up speed, plunging faster and faster into the inky depths. He tapped a button marked “emergency override”. Nothing happened. He pressed it again. Still nothing.
“Depth at three-point-one kilometers.”
The override obviously wasn’t working, so Thomas had to come up with a new plan. He navigated the menus until he reached “power distribution”. From there, he began the process of siphoning away power from the thrusters until they shut down. A message popped up briefly, warning that diverting power while the thrusters were active could cause catastrophic damage. He ignored it and continued working.
“Depth at three-point-four kilometers.”
There was a loud bang from the rear of the pod. That didn’t sound good, he thought. But it worked. The thrusters shut down and the pod was no longer speeding up. Now he just had to-
“Warning…impact in seven hundred meters.”
Thomas snapped his head toward the front of the pod. A hologram flared into existence, flashing an alarming red. It showed a tiny representation of his pod diving straight for the ocean floor. A countdown timer appeared: twenty-eight…twenty-seven…twenty-six…
“Fuck fuck fuck,” he cursed aloud, turning his attention back to the systems hologram. His hands moved quickly, re-routing as much power as he could spare to the front thrusters of the pod.
“Impact in five hundred meters.”
Thomas navigated his way back to the “thrusters” menu, then clicked into the sub-menu for “reverse thrusters”.
“Impact in three hundred meters.”
He tapped a button. There was a loud clunk and hissing as the thrusters began to work. But would it be enough? Thomas turned his attention toward the front window.
“Impact in one hundred meters”
His breathing was heavy.
“Impact in fifty meters”
His hands began to shake.
“Impact in twenty meters.”
Thomas braced himself.
A moment later everything roared and rumbled as the pod sliced into the seabed. Thomas lost his grip on the handle and went flying toward the front of the pod, cracking his head against a metal pipe.
The world was swallowed by darkness…
“That’s me,” he replied, extending a hand. The two shook.
“It’s good to meet you. I’m Colonel Bryce Irving. This is Corporal Brandon Coleman.” Thomas shook hands with Coleman. “I assume you’ve been briefed on the mission?”
“For the most part,” Thomas said.
“Good. As you’ve likely been told, we will be disembarking in a large research shuttle. Attached to the shuttle are two research submersibles we call ‘pods’.”
“I’m familiar with them,” he replied.
“Very good,” Colonel Irving replied. “Then we won’t need to give you the tutorial. We’ll be leaving in a half hour’s time. The plan is to have you in one of the pods, exploring the area around what we call Verne’s Trench.”
“Sounds good.” Thomas’ eyes drifted to the large assault rifles on their backs. Seems unnecessary, he thought to himself, but said nothing out loud.
“Any last-minute questions,” Irving asked. “Specific concerns?”
“No,” Thomas replied. “I think I’m good.”
“So,” Coleman chimed in, “long way from home.” He motioned toward the ring on Thomas’ finger. “Couldn’t wait to get away from the missus huh?”
Thomas’ silent stare must have been unnerving, because Coleman shot a look at Irving.
“I need to get some things ready before we go,” Thomas said. And with that, he turned away and walked over to the table where his luggage was. Apparently, Coleman must have figured he was out of earshot.
“What the hell’s his problem,” Thomas heard him say after a moment.
“I could ask you the same question,” Colonel Irving replied.
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean is you’re lucky you’re a crack marksman, because your social skills aren’t worth shit.”
“But sir, the guy’s weird.”
“Everybody’s weird,” Thomas heard Irving reply.
“But he’s extra weird. I mean, did you see the way he stared at me? It’s like I wasn’t even there.”
“Look…just go down to the shuttle bay and prep for launch.” Then, Irving raised his voice. “See you at the shuttle Haskins!”
Thomas gave a half-hearted wave without bothering to turn around…
A dull creaking was the first sound that reached his ears. His eyes opened, revealing a world full of blurry shades of blue. As things came into focus, Thomas realized he was staring out the front window of the pod. With a groan, he pulled himself up into a sitting position. Thanks to the spotlights outside, he caught a faint glimpse of himself in the reflection.
He had certainly seen better days.
Thomas Haskins was nobody special. He had light blue eyes, brown hair, and stood at an average height for a human being. But the detachment in his gaze was noticeable, as if he was a man who barely noticed the world around him. Even in the faint reflection, it was possible to make out a small trickle of blood on his forehead.
Damn it…better not have a concussion, he thought to himself.
Getting to his feet, Thomas sat down in the pod’s chair and swiped his hand over one of the armrests. A slew of bright amber holograms materialized in front of him.
“Computer, status report,” he ordered.
“Hull integrity at forty percent. Thrusters non-operational. CO2 scrubbers functioning at nominal capacity. Oxygen system has sustained heavy damage,” a computerized female voice said.
“How much air do I have left?”
“At current reserves, Pod Two has approximately three hours and forty-four minutes of air left.”
“What?! The pod was supposed to have enough air to last two days!”
“Oxygen tanks one through four, six through nine, and twelve have all suffered critical damage and are no longer functioning.”
“God damn it!” Thomas slammed his fist against the armrest. No good getting worked up about it, he thought to himself, taking a deep breath. I need to get to work. “Computer,” he said aloud, “what is the status of the pod’s communications?”
“Long-range and short-range communications are currently offline,” the computer replied.
“Figures,” Haskins muttered aloud. “What is the source of the issue?”
“Great,” Thomas said. “Looks like I’ll have to figure it out myself.”
Thomas suddenly became aware of movement outside the pod. A small shadow was crawling across the ocean floor. The shape stopped for a moment, then slithered toward the window. Once it got close enough, Thomas was able to see it under the light. It was a bulbous looking fish, with small turquoise eyes and a large, gray belly. His first impression was that it was similar to a puffer fish back on Earth, a creature that had the ability to inflate itself in order to scare off predators. To Thomas, it seemed harmless…cute almost.
And then it opened its mouth.
His heart jumped. Inside were spiral rows of menacing, razor-sharp white teeth. They gleamed under the diluted beams of the pod’s spotlights. The fish moved backwards, as if it were getting ready to charge.
Are those sharp enough to break the glass? Thomas couldn’t say.
Fortunately, he never had to find out. A second later there was a deep, rumbling groan that echoed through the underwater landscape. The fish’s mouth snapped shut and it scrambled off into the darkness. Thomas got to his feet and moved closer to the window.
And then he saw it: a massive, shadowy figure swimming through the water. From his estimation, the thing had to be at least forty meters in length, larger than a blue whale. In fact, a whale was the best comparison he could make. What little he could see of the darkened figure told him it had a large tail that it used to move around in the water. Only this creature’s tail was forked, almost like a trident. He didn’t get to see much more, as it seemed to disappear beneath the ground.
That’s when it hit him.
“Computer, what is our depth reading,” he asked.
“Depth is four-point-two kilometers.”
This wasn’t the bottom of the trench. No…of course it wasn’t. He had managed to get caught on an outcropping on the way down. It was probably for the better. Their best estimation of the trench’s maximum depth was somewhere over twelve kilometers. It was the deepest trench they had ever recorded on any planet, including Earth.
Thomas was thankful he wasn’t going to be the first to reach the bottom. Because even if he miraculously survived the descent, there would have been no hope for a return trip.
A static buzzing told him it had worked.
“Yes,” he exclaimed aloud, pulling his head out from within an open panel in the wall. “Computer, what is the current status of our communications system?”
“Long-range communications offline. Short-range communications are functional, but limited.”
Good enough, he thought as he got to his feet. He sat down in the main chair and pulled up the holograms. He tapped a button and opened a radio transmission.
“This is Pod Two. Can anybody read me?”
He paused. There was no response.
“Pod One, come in. Come in Pod One.”
“Pod One, Shuttle Nautilus…come in. Somebody…anybody! Do you read me?!”
“God damn it,” Thomas shouted. He took a moment to calm himself and think. If there was no way he could call out, then maybe he could at least listen in. He stared at the hologram for a moment before it hit him: he couldn’t remember the frequencies they were supposed to use. Apparently the crash hurt his head more than he thought.
So he began cycling through all of the available radio frequencies, hoping that he might chance upon the one used by the Nautilus. But minutes went by with nothing but static…static and silence. Thomas had never felt so alone in his life.
He began flicking faster and faster through the frequencies, feeling a tightness in his chest. Once again, he tried willing himself to calm down, taking deep breaths. But this time it didn’t work. The tightness in his chest wouldn’t go away. But then he let his mind drift. And from the recesses of memory came an intimately familiar sound.
Music…piano music to be precise.
It was a slow, melodic tune that he knew very well. In a way, it complimented the view outside the pod: the empty, yet serene landscape of rocky seabed…the faint, light blue glow everything had under the spotlights. He leaned back and closed his eyes, letting the sound of the piano keys lull him into a sense of calm.
Until he realized the music wasn’t in his head. It was coming from the radio.
His eyes opened and stared at the hologram, quivering. No, he thought, this is impossible. It can’t be…not here…not now.
Warm, familiar hands encircled his neck.
It felt like a lifetime ago.
The moon was high in the sky and the streets outside the campus halls were lit by old streetlights. The dim yellow light glinted off the face of a young Thomas Haskins walking down the corridor, making his way across campus to his apartment building. He turned a corner and stopped. Something drifted down the hallway toward him.
Piano music…soft, yet clear.
It was coming from one of the music rooms. Normally, he wouldn’t have bothered to go check it out. Thomas had no desire to intrude on other people’s private business. But for some reason…he couldn’t help himself. With each stroke of the keys he could feel the passion of the person playing. With each note, he felt himself being pulled further down the hallway.
He knew the song of course. It was a classic: Clair De Lune by Debussy. One of those pieces that transcended its time and became part of a timeless culture. It had a melancholic, yet soothing air to it.
When Thomas finally reached the door, he paused. What the hell was he doing, walking in on someone like this? He should just leave, go back to his apartment before he embarrassed himself.
But he knew he couldn’t. The music had already cast its spell on him.
Thomas pushed the door open as gently as he could.
She was hunched over the piano, her back to him. Her white fingers seemed to glide over the keys with the ease of a master. Long, bright red hair drifted past her shoulders and down her back. She was wearing a dark red shirt and blue jeans. Thomas got the sense that he could have practically kicked open the door and it wouldn’t have disturbed her. She was absorbed in the piece, as if she and the piano had become one being.
He let the door close softly behind him and waited for her to finish. A few minutes later, her fingers lifted off the keys and folded in her lap. For a moment, Thomas thought she might vanish like a ghost, as if she never existed in the first place. But then she turned…and flinched when she spotted him.
“Oh geez,” she exclaimed.
“Sorry,” he said with an awkward chuckle. “I didn’t mean to scare you. I was just walking down the hall when I heard you playing. I just had to…you know…come and see it for myself.” He paused. “That doesn’t make me sound any less creepy does it?”
She laughed at that. Her smile lit up the room. Her eyes were a brilliant green.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “I practice here at night because hardly anyone else is around. It’s hard for me to play when people are constantly wandering through the halls.”
“I can understand that,” he replied.
The two of them looked at each other for a while.
“I’m Tom,” he said. “Tom Haskins.”
“Nice to meet you Tom. I’m Claire,” she said. “Claire O’Donovan.”
“Claire?” He chuckled. “Claire plays Clair De Lune,” he added with a singsong voice.
“It is strangely fitting, isn’t it? My mom used to play it for me when I was little. I guess it just stuck.”
“So you’re studying to become a musician then,” he asked.
“No…I’m a business major.”
“A business major?” Thomas was incredulous.
“Yeah…I know it’s weird, but I don’t want to turn my music into a job. I prefer to keep it as a hobby…if that makes any sense.”
“What about you,” she asked. “What are you going to school for?”
“Well well…you’re a long way from the science classrooms, aren’t you?”
He chuckled. “Yeah…my apartment is on the opposite side of campus. Takes a while to walk…but I don’t mind. It’s beautiful this time of night…especially when there’s no wind and the sky is clear.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” she said.
Another period of silence passed between them.
“I know this seems fast,” he said, “but would you like to grab a bite to eat sometime? Like…off-campus?”
She smiled again. He already loved that smile.
“You know what? I’d like that.”
Past became present once more. Thomas looked up to find Claire leaning over his seat.
“Well…looks like you’ve gotten yourself into a hell of a situation this time, haven’t you,” she said with a smile.
Thomas was frozen, continuing to stare. Claire frowned.
“What’s wrong,” she asked. Her sly smile returned. “It’s like you’re seeing a ghost.”
“I…you…you can’t…” Thomas stammered.
“I can’t be here? Silly…of course I’m not here. That would be impossible. You know that.”
He paused for a moment.
“Your eyes…” he mumbled.
“What about ’em?”
“They were never brown…”
The vision that claimed to be his wife shrugged.
“Maybe you think it compliments my hair better,” she said, running a hand through her scalp.
“I don’t understand,” Thomas said. “Why are you here?”
“Maybe you need someone to give you a push…to motivate you. I know you Tom. You let things get to you way too easily. I bet I can tell what you’re thinking right now. ‘I’m never going to get out of here. I’m going to die down here. There’s nothing I can do.’ That sound about right?”
Thomas was silent for a moment. Then, a faint smile crawled across his face.
“Damn it…you always did know me too well,” he said.
“Why wouldn’t I? Now…you need to get moving.”
“I’m not going anywhere Claire. The thrusters are beyond repair.”
“Have you tried calling for help?”
“I have…but I got no response.”
“Well…have you tried an automated distress call?”
Thomas stared at her for a moment. Then he slapped his face with his hand.
“Why didn’t I think of that?”
He reached forward and accessed the radio controls again. He set it to broadcast an SOS distress call on a wide band, covering as many frequencies as he could. He had no way of knowing what its range was, or if it was even transmitting properly, but it was the best he had.
“Computer,” he said, “what is the status of the oxygen reserves?”
“Current oxygen reserves will last for approximately three hours and four minutes.”
“Hopefully that will be enough,” he said as he leaned back in his chair. “Now all I can do is wait.” He looked at Claire. “I was always terrible at waiting.”
“You certainly were. We hadn’t even known each other for five minutes before you asked me out.”
“Yeah…social skills were never my strong suit.” He squinted at her. “Why did you accept anyways? You could have easily said no. For all you knew, I was just some creep looking to score some tail.”
Claire leaned in close to him.
“Maybe I could tell who you were on the inside. Maybe I knew just by looking at you that you couldn’t harm a fly.” She traced his cheek with her finger. Her touch was warm and delicate…just as he remembered. “Maybe I was feeling adventurous. Does it really matter?”
Thomas leaned into her touch.
“No…I suppose it doesn’t,” he said.
Thomas closed his eyes and relaxed, feeling at peace for the first time in years. But even so, he wondered if it was all just part of some dream…wondered if he had really hit his head hard when the pod crashed. Was he actually sitting there, seeing his wife…or was he really just lying motionless on the pod floor…slowly bleeding to death?
Part of him recoiled at the thought.
Another part of him figured it didn’t matter.
“So…what do you think of the view?”
No reply. Thomas opened his eyes and found that Claire had vanished into the night like the phantom she was.
It had been a cool spring day when they toured the house. It was a nice looking place: a big two-story house with an attic out in the remote countryside. It had an obvious air of antiquity to it: fine gray and red brickwork lining the outside and dark red shingles on the roof. It looked old…but Thomas knew better. In recent decades there had been a rising interest in older architecture. Many houses were constructed with designs similar to those you might find two to three centuries ago, although with modern materials that were merely made to look old.
Thomas didn’t mind. He found the old-fashioned design charming. But Claire seemed less impressed. From the moment they got out of the car, she had run her eyes up the building and frowned. This was the last house they had lined up. Thomas held on to the hope that she would find something to like here.
The front doors were made of ornate and glossy wood. They opened to reveal a woman in a red blazer with bright blonde hair. She waved to them with a cheery smile on her face.
“Hey you two,” she called. “Glad to see you again!”
They had visited six houses over the last few weeks. This was the seventh. The realtor had been at three other houses. She was upbeat and nice, although Thomas found her to be a little overbearing.
“Come on in,” she said, then disappeared back inside.
Thomas stepped into the house and was immediately in love. A large, carpeted staircase led into the upper floor of the house, and the entryway was flanked by a set of double doors on each side. One of them was open, and he could see directly into the kitchen. The real estate woman was waiting for them there. He thought her name was Raquel or Rachel or something…he honestly couldn’t remember.
“Come in…come in!” She motioned them into the kitchen. Thomas stole a glance at Claire, whose stone-faced expression betrayed nothing. He hoped she didn’t resent him for taking her here.
“To be honest,” the agent said, “I’m surprised you were asking about this place. It’s one of the more expensive ones on the market.”
“Money isn’t much of an issue,” Thomas said, running his eyes up and down the kitchen.
“Really? What was it that you do again,” she asked.
“I’m a marine biologist.”
“Wow…you must have spent quite some time at college.”
“Seven years to get my master’s,” he replied without making eye contact.
The kitchen had certainly been modernized: marble countertops, a stainless steel fridge, and newly varnished wooden cabinets and drawers. The pots and pans hung up on hooks in the center of the room. All in all, the kitchen was small and felt a little bit cramped. But Thomas could get used to that.
It was Claire that needed convincing.
“So this is the kitchen,” the agent began. “Not exactly spacious, I know…but if you’re interested in buying the house there is the possibility for further renovations. Now, this house was originally constructed around sixty years ago by a wealthy banker who had a wife and two kids. The house has passed between a couple different owners in the past twenty years…”
She went on like that as they walked through the house. Thomas only half-listened to her recitation of the house’s history. They looked at the living room, where Thomas noted the neat stone fireplace in the center. Next was the upstairs bedrooms. There were three of them…a large master bedroom with a master bathroom and two smaller rooms that he imagined were originally for the kids. Next was the attic, which was as dreary as Thomas expected. On their way back down, they stopped to look at the second, smaller bathroom on the second floor.
At the end of the tour, they found themselves standing in the entryway.
“Well…that about covers it,” the realtor said. “What do you think?”
“Personally? I love it,” Thomas said. “I’ve always liked older architecture.” He paused, feeling a twinge of selfish fear. He wanted Claire to love it as much as he did, but her reaction so far had been one of disinterest. “What do you think honey,” he asked, turning to her.
But she wasn’t looking at them. Instead, her emerald eyes were focused on the other set of double doors.
“Where does that lead,” she asked.
“Oh my gosh…I completely forgot,” the realtor said. “This is one of the more interesting pieces of the house,” she explained as she took out her ring of keys. “It was initially used as a kind of conversation parlor for guests.” She turned the key and pushed the doors open. “Please excuse the mess…we’re still going through some renovations at the moment.”
It was almost like walking into a different world. Thomas’ steps echoed off the rounded walls. The realtor had been right about the mess…the place was dusty and empty. Right now it was just plain wooden flooring and half-completed walls.
“Most of the subsequent owners turned the parlor into a second living room I think. I honestly can’t remember,” the realtor explained.
But Thomas wasn’t paying any attention. Instead, his eyes were locked on Claire. She was standing in the center of the room, her eyes alight with pleasure. She had her hands out to her sides and began spinning around in a circle like a child struck with wonder. He couldn’t help but smile.
“Someone likes it,” the realtor said with a chuckle.
“This is amazing,” Claire said with delight. She turned her gaze to Thomas. “You know what I could do with this room? I could turn it into my own personal piano parlor. I could play in here all night and with the doors closed it probably wouldn’t even bother you.”
Thomas’ smile grew wider. “I’m glad you like it,” he said.
“Oh I love it,” she said, raising her eyes to the ceiling once again.
“So what do you think,” the realtor asked. “Do we have a sale?”
Thomas watched Claire’s eyes roam around the room in delight. “I think we do.”
“Great! I’ll just go grab some paperwork out of the car and we can get you on the list. I do have a couple other visitations to the house in the following week, but I’d say your chances are good.”
“Good to hear,” Thomas replied.
“I’ll be right back.” Then the realtor was out the door, walking down the front steps. Thomas went over to Claire, who still had her eyes raised to the ceiling.
“You know,” Thomas said, “I was afraid you were going to hate the place.”
“It just seems a little extravagant,” she said, locking eyes with him. “But this parlor is so…perfect. I don’t think we’ll find anything else quite like this.”
He put his arms around her. “I just want you to be happy,” he said.
Claire leaned against him.
“I know you do.”
He looked down at her and ran a hand through her thick, red hair. He had known for a long time that he wouldn’t want to spend his life with anyone else. She was so delicate and beautiful, someone to be treasured. And this place would be perfect for them. It was a far deal bigger than the cramped one bedroom apartment they’d been living in for the past couple of years.
Thomas never wanted to the moment to end. But then, Claire suddenly stiffened in his arms.
“Honey? What’s wrong?”
She broke free from his embraced and stared at him.
“Tom…you need to wake up,” she said, her voice urgent.
He stared at her.
“Wake up Tom,” she said again.
Thomas felt like his head was swollen. He held his hands against his forehead and doubled over, groaning.
“Ugh…what’s going on?!”
“Tom…wake up,” Claire said again, her voice laced with desperation.
He managed to lift his head up and looked at her, the world pulsing and swirling around him. That’s when he noticed.
Her eyes were brown…
“Tom, for god’s sake wake up!”
His eyes snapped open and he gasped.
“What…what’s happening,” he asked.
“You need to get moving,” Claire said, standing over him.
Thomas opened his mouth to speak, but the computer cut him off.
“Warning…CO2 scrubbers offline…carbon dioxide at critical levels.”
“Oh god,” Thomas mumbled aloud, pulling himself out of the chair. He tried to stand, but collapsed to the ground. Everything was hazy and far away. His head throbbed and vibrated.
“Tom, get up,” Claire said.
“I…I can’t. My head…”
“Get the hell up or you’re going to die!”
He put his hands out underneath him and managed to push himself into a sitting position. He leaned against the front of the chair and panted, his breathing quick and shallow. He could see Claire…but in his current state she looked like little more than a mush of pale red.
His eyes drooped. The world began to fade.
“Oh no you don’t.”
He felt a sharp slap across his face. Everything snapped back into place.
“Ow,” he complained.
“You need to stay awake. If you fall asleep again, that’s it. You’re done,” Claire said. Thomas sat still for a moment, his head bobbing back and forth.
“Get moving,” she ordered.
Groaning, Thomas pulled himself to his feet. He took a step toward the back of the pod and stumbled, slamming into the wall. A pained grimace crossed his face as he caressed his shoulder with his hand.
“There’s no time to waste. Get over there and fix the problem!”
The amber hologram in the back seemed to sway back and forth as he stared at it. Nevertheless, Thomas summoned the strength and took a step. Then another. And another. He felt like a baby learning to walk for the first time. After what felt like minutes, he found himself standing in front of the screen. In his current state, the words on the hologram might as well have been gibberish. They flitted in and out of focus.
“I’m working on it, okay,” he muttered.
He reached out and tapped a button.
“Air control,” he mumbled. “CO2 scrubbers…offline…not enough power.”
“You need to re-route the power Tom. Or else you’ll suffocate.”
“Tell me something I don’t know,” he grumbled to himself. After an agonizing minute, during which Thomas was certain he would pass out, he managed to navigate his way to power distribution. As he stared at them, the words on the hologram seemed to pulse and shimmer.
“What…what can I…what can I take power away from,” he mumbled to himself.
He looked over his shoulder at the front window and an idea struck him. Turning back to the screen, Thomas swiped his fingers across the hologram. Almost instantaneously, the world outside grew darker. A loud clunk echoed through the pod.
“CO2 scrubbers online…air quality improving,” the computer announced.
“Well done,” Claire said.
Thomas turned around and leaned against the wall, sliding down onto the floor.
“What is it,” she asked. “What’s wrong?”
He stared up at her, his eyes growing misty.
“Why…why are you here,” he asked, a faint tremor in his voice.
Claire didn’t respond.
“Is it to torment me? Is that it? Is this some kind of cruel joke?! Are you punishing me?!”
“No,” he screamed. “Just go! I don’t want you here!“
He scrunched his eyes shut.
“Leave! Leave! Leave! Just leave me the hell alone!“
His words bounced off the metal walls, a shrieking and cacophonous echo. He kept his eyes closed for what must have been half a minute. When he finally opened them again, the apparition of Claire was gone.
Thomas stared off into space for a long time, his body dull and numb. Then, he laid down on the ground and began to silently weep.
It happened…neither of them wanted it to happen, but it did. After buying the house, a couple of years went past. And they drifted apart.
It wasn’t anything dramatic…there wasn’t any big fight between them. It was just the passage of time. Thomas spent more and more time at work, less and less time at home. And Claire noticed. She never said anything, but he could tell she resented him for it. When he returned home late at night she was almost always playing the piano. Usually, she would stop and they would talk for a few minutes before Thomas went up to bed.
But even that gradually came to an end.
On one night in particular, the sky was clear and the moon was high. There was a light breeze coming from the forest that brushed against his hair as he emerged from the car. He made his way up the front steps and opened the door. Immediately, he heard the sound of the piano. He stopped in the entryway and watched as she played, her face lit only by a tiny lamp and the glow of the full moon.
If she even knew he had entered, she didn’t show it. Not that it mattered. They hardly talked anymore.
As he stood there, he felt a pang in his chest. There was no physical reason for it. But watching her play awoke something inside him briefly…yearning for the past…fear for the future. A swirl of feelings and thoughts overtook him. His hand reached out toward her of its own accord. He wanted to say something…anything.
But it faded. And then it was gone, nothing more than a fleeting ghost of a thought.
Thomas turned away and started walking up the stairs. About halfway up, he heard the piano abruptly stop. He froze in place…hoping feverishly that Claire would come out of the parlor and talk to him, urge him to come back down and sit with her.
But a moment later, the music began anew. She was lost to him.
When he reached the top of the stairs instead of walking into the master bedroom he entered one of the smaller rooms and sat down on a small, green cot. He had slept there for the past few months, whenever he came home. He gave her the master bedroom because he felt she deserved it more than he did. He barely stayed in the house anymore.
Thomas passed the time in silence, just listening to the faint music coming up from below. Eventually he got up and closed the door, shutting the music out. He undressed, pulled on his sleeping clothes, and climbed into the cot.
It was a long time before his mind let him drift off to sleep…
Time passed slowly as Thomas sat in the chair. The pod felt more like a coffin with each passing minute.
There was no response to the distress call. He was either too deep or the radio was too damaged to get the signal out. He couldn’t tell and, in the end, he didn’t care. He could have accepted death. He could have accepted dying down in this cold, darkened pit by himself.
What he couldn’t accept…was her.
She was like the universe’s last chance to have a laugh at his expense…a way to have some cruel fun with him before he suffocated. No one was coming for him down here. They had to know he was missing. They were supposed to check in once every twenty minutes. And now hours had gone by.
Which reminded him…
“Computer…how much air do I have left,” he said, his voice barely audible.
“Oxygen reserves will last for approximately forty-three minutes and seven seconds.”
So this is it then, he thought. This is where I die. They’ll never find me down here. This trench is massive. They’ll probably assume I sank all the way to the bottom and was crushed into a tin can by the pressure. They’ll have gone back to the ship. Maybe they’re arranging a funeral for me already…not that I deserve one.
From somewhere outside, he heard a deep groan. He couldn’t see it, but he knew that whale creature was out there somewhere. It was strange, but its call sounded somehow…sad…like a cry of regret.
Me too buddy, he thought. Me too…
He sensed her presence before he saw her.
“What do you want,” he asked bitterly.
There was a brief silence.
“Tom…I’m sorry…I didn’t realize how much this would upset you,” she said.
His head snapped up, anger flaring in his eyes.
“How could you not know,” he snarled. “How could you possibly think that I would be okay with you being here?”
Claire stared at her feet for a moment.
“You still haven’t forgiven yourself, have you,” she asked, lifting her eyes to meet his.
“How the hell could I,” he asked. “It’s my fault…my fault you-” He broke off, tears swelling in his eyes. Claire stepped forward, laying a hand on his shoulder.
“You can’t possibly blame yourself for that.”
“Watch me,” he said, giving her a hard stare. “I’ve been doing it for the last two fucking years.”
“There was no way you could have known what would happen.”
“But I still drove you away, didn’t I? I drove you away and then-“
He broke off, his eyes going misty again.
“…and then you were gone forever.”
What do you want from me Claire? They need me out there. They need me to do my job.
But what about us Tom? I’ve spent so many nights sitting in that damn parlor playing the piano by myself.
What do you want me to say? I’m sorry, okay! I can’t help it. Things come up.
Things always come up…
What the hell does that mean?!
I…I just…I barely feel like you’re there anymore. Even when you’re home, it’s like your mind is a million miles away. I hate it!
You knew what you were getting into Claire! I told you I was studying to be a marine biologist the night we met!
Oh, so now it’s MY fault?
I didn’t say that…
You’re ridiculous Tom!
Claire I…where are you going? Claire? Claire?! CLAIRE!!
The fight was still on his mind as he pushed his way through the throngs of people running around in a panic. The months of silence…the things they said to each other that morning…they all seemed so unnecessary and petty now. The frustration he had felt was replaced with unbridled terror.
Please let her be okay, he kept thinking. Please…
He had seen the news reports. The annual town’s parade celebration had been brutally interrupted when gunfire started ringing out through Main Street. People fled in a panic, trampling each other as they tried to get to cover
At least thirty people dead they had said.
When he finally saw where it was, panic seized him in its iron grip. The library was right in the line of fire. He knew that’s where Claire would go to have some peace and quiet. It’s where she would go to think.
The news hadn’t said much…just that the suspect opened fire on the parade from the fourth floor of a nearby building. No one knew who they were or why they did it. But Thomas knew they would tell him every sordid detail of the shooter’s life in the coming weeks. They always did. Like hungry flies on a fresh corpse, they would greedily suck up every bit of information they could.
Please…oh god please…
He finally made it through the crowd and found himself at a police barricade.
“Everybody, move back,” an officer was shouting. “Move back! We need you to stay back!”
Even through the barricade he could see the body bags…the stretchers. The stench of iron and death hung in the air like a thick mist. The once-vibrant Main Street looked like it had been utterly drained of color.
“Move back! Move back,” the officer was still shouting when Thomas stepped forward. He held up a photo of Claire.
“Have you seen this woman,” he shouted over the fray.
“Sir please I-move back,” the officer shouted at someone who was trying to push through the blockade.
“Please, I just need to know if you’ve seen her,” Thomas insisted.
“Sir I can’t help you right now.”
“God damn it, I just need to know if you’ve seen her!”
The police officer turned and gave him a stern look.
“Sir, listen…I’ve had about fifty different people asking me that question in the last ten minutes. I can’t answer you because I honestly don’t know. There’s too much chaos right now. I’m sorry, but I can’t help you.”
Thomas was on the verge of screaming at the officer when he suddenly caught the eye of another man. He was a younger person: dark skin, blue eyes and black hair. He was wearing a torn up gray t-shirt and black pants. A faint trickle of blood marred his cheek. He wasn’t staring at Thomas, but rather at the picture he was holding.
“My god…” the man said aloud.
Thomas held the picture out toward him.
“You’ve seen her? Please…tell me where she is. Tell me she’s okay!”
The man bit his lip. And then he knew.
“No…” Thomas whimpered quietly, the picture falling to his side.
“I’m sorry,” the man said. “It happened right in front of me.”
“Sir, please,” a paramedic said, running up to him. “We still need to get you checked out.”
After shooting one final glance at Thomas, the man begrudgingly followed the medic into the ambulance.
Thomas stood still for what must have been a solid minute. Then he turned his back on the barricade and stumbled through the crowd, numb and cold. All sound around him seemed to dissipate, shrinking into a dull roar. He got away from the people and sat alone on the sidewalk. The sky was a smooth shade of gray. Rain was on the horizon.
He didn’t have to fight back the screams.
He didn’t have to fight back the tears.
There was nothing but a dull, thumping absence of feeling. It was emptiness, a void in his heart.
He took the one person he cared about more than anything for granted, and now she was gone…
“I couldn’t be in that house anymore,” Thomas said. “I wanted to get away…I had to get far away from it. Every time I was there, all I’d do was sit at that goddamn piano. I would just stare at it, hoping that you’d walk through that door and I’d find out it was all some horrible dream.”
“But it wasn’t a dream, Tom…it happened,” Claire said. “It happened…and it hurts. But…you need to move on. This is not healthy.”
“Don’t you think I fucking know that,” he snapped. “Don’t you think I know that every single day I dwell on this is unhealthy?! Don’t you think I know that every single sleepless night I have in that god damn house is unhealthy?! Do you think I enjoy doing this to myself? Is that it? You think this is somehow fun for me?!”
“No…no, of course not.” Claire cocked her head to the side. “But…it’s been two years Tom.” She knelt in front of him and put her hands on his shoulders. “You need to remember me as the person I was…not as the victim who died.”
He could barely manage to look her in the eyes.
“But how I can do that,” he croaked. “How can I do that while you’re sitting there, reminding me of what we lost?”
Claire was silent for a moment.
“I don’t know Tom…but you have to.”
“Warning: ten minutes of oxygen remaining.”
This was it…the end of his life.
In a way, Thomas was relieved. He’d spent the past two years torturing himself over what had happened on that day. He’d spent so much time asking “what if” and saying “I should’ve”. None of it mattered. He could have done any number of different things.
But he didn’t. And she died. That was the simple truth.
There was a strange solace in that…solace in the fact that things couldn’t be changed. It was…comforting. After so long of miring in his self-loathing…at least Thomas could face the end of his life having some kind of closure. He had spent so long trying not to think of that day…only to have it creeping back into his conscious mind at every turn. Actually confronting it head on had brought a sense of relief.
“Warning: nine minutes of oxygen remaining.”
His back was cramped from sitting in the seat for so long. But Thomas didn’t care. It would all be over soon enough.
“…od Two, come in.”
Thomas stared at the hologram. No…it had to be another hallucination…another trick.
“Pod Two…this is Colonel Irving. Do you read me?”
He sat up. Surely he was hearing things.
“Irving to Pod Two, please come in.”
He pressed a button on the hologram.
“This is Pod Two,” he said weakly. “Is anybody out there?”
“Oh thank god we found you,” Irving’s voice said. “We’ve been looking for you for over three hours.”
“Sorry to have been so much trouble.”
“Ha…don’t beat yourself up over it Haskins.”
“So I assume you heard my distress call?”
There was a pause.
“What distress call?”
“You mean you never got my SOS?”
“No…have you been transmitting one?”
“Yes,” he said. “For hours.”
“Strange…must be a malfunction with your radio equipment.”
“But then…how the hell did you find me?”
“You can thank your friend.”
Thomas stared ahead blankly.
“What friend,” he asked.
“Some kind of large creature. It’s been running laps around you for at least an hour now, probably longer. It kept giving off this weird energy signature too…that’s actually how we found you.”
Thomas sat back in his chair.
“We’ll be there to get you in just a couple of minutes…hang in there.”
But Thomas wasn’t listening anymore. A gigantic shadow had fallen over the pod. Outside, he saw a large lump of white flesh slide in front of the main window. The…whale or whatever it was stared directly into the pod…directly into his eyes. Its one eye alone was bigger than Thomas’ head. And it was a deep, milky brown.
The radio crackled. Clair De Lune played faintly through the speakers.
And then she was there. Claire…standing next to the window…a smile on her face.
Her eyes were brown.
Thomas opened his mouth to speak…but froze. His gaze flicked back and forth between Claire and the creature.
His mind reeled with shock.
And he understood all at once.
Remember me as the person I was…
He had forgotten.
Thomas climbed out of his car, groggy and exhausted. The moon was high and the night was cold. Upon entering the house, he heard the sound of music. Standing in the entryway like he had done so many times before, Thomas watched as Claire played. Tonight, it was once again Clair De Lune…her favorite. She didn’t look up, didn’t seem to pay any attention to him.
As usual, he thought to himself. Can’t really blame anyone but myself…
He turned away and was about to mount the stairs when abruptly the piano music stopped.
He paused for a moment. Then he turned back around and walked into the parlor.
The two of them stared at each other in silence for a while. Then Claire looked away, staring glumly at the floor.
“Is…is this how it’s going to be,” she asked.
Thomas didn’t know how to respond at first.
“What do you mean,” he finally asked.
“This…this whole thing,” she said, looking up at him. “Our lives…our…relationship. Are we just going to sit here and pretend like nothing’s wrong? Are we just never going to talk to each other anymore?”
“I don’t know,” Thomas admitted.
Claire rubbed her forehead.
“This is ridiculous,” she said. “I don’t want this. I don’t want to let this happen.”
“Let what happen?”
“This,” she emphasized again. “You…me…drifting away from each other. Tom I…I don’t want to lose you.”
Thomas stared at her. Then, a moment later, he sighed.
“I don’t want to lose you either,” he said. “I just…I don’t know what to do.”
“Just…talk to me,” she said.
“I don’t know…work…whatever you want. Here,” she said, patting the piano bench, “take a seat.”
More than a little hesitant, Thomas nevertheless made his way over and sat down.
“What do you want to know,” he asked.
“Anything,” she replied. “Everything.”
“Well…everyone at work has been in a buzz over this new planet that’s been discovered. It’s over ninety percent ocean. We’ve all been speculating what strange creatures might live there.”
“How do you know that anything lives there?”
“Honestly…we don’t. But something with that vast of an ocean must have something in it.”
“See? This is what I want,” Claire said. “I just want to talk. I just want to be with you every once in a while.”
“I know. I’m…I’m sorry. It’s been a hectic time. We’ve been terribly busy.”
Claire put her arm around his shoulder and they sat in silence for a long time. Thomas swore he could almost feel the light of the moon on his back. He looked at her. She smiled. He had missed that smile.
“You know,” he said, “they’ve been looking for people to help out with the research on that planet.”
Her smile faded.
“You’re not seriously considering going…are you,” she asked.
“No…I don’t think I could stand being that far away for so long.”
The smile returned.
“Good,” she said, leaning her head against his shoulder.
“Tell me about Clair De Lune,” he said.
“What do you mean,” she asked.
“Why is it your favorite song?”
“Tom you already know this…I must have told you a million times by now.”
“Well I want to hear it again.”
“All right…well when I was a kid, I went through a phase where I was terribly scared of the dark. I could barely sleep at night, even with a night light on. On the worst nights, my mom would pick me up out of bed and carry me downstairs to the piano. She would sit me on her lap and start playing Clair De Lune.”
“So you got your interest in music from your mother,” Thomas observed.
“Yes…my father was a nice man, but he had no real musical inclination. My mom was the artist…the creative type. But anyways, Clair De Lune would always lull me to sleep. It was so effective that eventually my mom bought me an audio player with a personal recording of her playing the song.”
“She couldn’t play anymore?”
“It’s not that…she just got moved to the late night shift at her work. So she got me the player in lieu of her playing the piano in person.”
“Do you still have the player,” he asked, although he already knew the answer.
“Of course,” she replied. “I’ve kept it my entire life…it’s one of the few possession I truly treasure.”
She reached into her pants pocket and pulled out a small, white device with a wheel, buttons and a screen on the front.
“Ooh…vintage,” he remarked.
Claire turned the device on, selected the song, and hit play. Immediately, the room was filled with the sounds of a piano. Like mother, like daughter, Thomas thought to himself. It was almost uncanny how similar the playing was to Claire’s own. If he didn’t know any better, he would have assumed Claire recorded it herself.
“Clair De Lune,” she said. “Moonlight. I can’t explain why…but the song gives me hope. It reminds me that no matter what, there will always be a light on the horizon. It reminds me that, even in the darkest times, things can always get better.”
She leaned against him, and he rested his head on top of hers.
They sat there for what must have been at least five minutes, just listening to the song and their own breathing. It was as if time had slowed down, giving them an eternal moment to share with each other. The music, the light of the moon shining in through the window, the faint yellow light of the lamp cast over their faces…it was all so perfect.
Eventually, the song ended. Claire powered down the music player and set it down on top of the piano.
“I’m taking the next three weeks off of work,” Thomas said suddenly.
She turned to him, her mouth hanging open in surprise.
“What?! Really?!” The surprise quickly turned into elation. “That’s wonderful! Are you going to put in for the time when you go back in?”
“Already did,” he said with a smile. “The vacation starts tomorrow.”
A wide smile appeared on her face, which quickly transformed into a sultry grin. She leaned in close and the two began to kiss.
The rest of the night was a blur.
He had forgotten.
On the day Claire died, he was still sitting on the sidewalk when he heard a voice.
Thomas looked up. Standing in front of him was the young man who had recognized Claire’s photo.
“What do you want,” Thomas asked, unable to hide the bitterness in his voice.
“I…I wanted to tell you something,” the man said.
“Sir!” A paramedic came running up to them. “You’re not free to go yet!”
“Look,” the man said, turning towards the medic, “just let me do this okay? I’ll be over there in a minute.” The paramedic frowned, but soon enough he walked away. The man turned his attention back to Thomas.
“What the hell can you tell me,” Thomas snarled. “What the hell can you say to me that will fix it? Nothing you say can make it better.”
“I know,” the man said. “But I need to say it anyways.” He paused…biting his lip. “She…she saved my life.”
Thomas stared at him for a moment.
“Saved your life? How?”
“I was watching the parade when the gunfire started. At first, no one could really tell what it was. They just thought it was fireworks or confetti launchers or something…all part of the show. It was only when people started dropping that it dawned on everyone. People started screaming and running. Everything was chaos. No one knew where the shots were coming from…but I think she did.”
“What? How,” Thomas asked.
“I don’t know. She must have seen something. I tried to move, but I was pushed to the ground by the crowd. And then, she was just…there, pulling me to my feet. She moved me into a nearby alleyway, out of the line of fire. Then, she went back for a family that was frozen in place: a mother and her two children. She motioned for them to get into the alleyway with me. I tried to call to her…tried to tell her to get to safety. I don’t know if she didn’t hear me or just didn’t care or what…but she got the mother and her kids moving. And then-“
The man paused…biting his lip.
“I saw it,” he said. “I saw the bullet go through her skull. Her eyes just…went wide and she fell to the ground. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds…but it felt like minutes before she finally hit the ground. It was like…slow-motion or something. I couldn’t take my eyes off of her. If it wasn’t for her I’d have been trampled to death or shot.”
Thomas continued staring at him with a vacant expression.
“I know it won’t make it better now,” the man said. “But maybe, just maybe…it’ll ease the pain later on. Your wife was a hero, sir. I don’t want to forget that. I didn’t think you’d want to forget that either.”
And with that, the man walked away. Thomas watched him disappear back into the crowd before turning his eyes to the ground. Some part of him registered what he had, registered that his wife had died while saving people. But at the time, he barely acknowledged it.
Somehow, the memory got lost among the pain.
He had forgotten. But now…he remembered.
The human brain is a funny thing. It tends to focus on all of the bad things in life, blowing them so out of proportion that they seem bigger than they are. And in turn, the good times…the things we should be remembering…are pushed to the fringes of our minds.
This thought struck Thomas as he opened his eyes. Blurry, indistinct walls of bright white shifted into focus. He squinted. The spotlight shining down on him was glaring.
“Oh, you’re awake.”
A man with balding hair and thin spectacles appeared above him. He was wearing a white lab coat.
“Are you…the doctor,” Thomas wheezed.
“Indeed,” the man said. “You know, you’re very lucky Mr. Haskins. That pod had only a few minutes of air left by the time they got to you. You had fallen unconscious, but they managed to get you on board the shuttle and back here to the ship.” He locked eyes with Thomas. “I have to ask…what exactly happened down there? I heard something about a…whale?”
“I…met someone…I think,” Thomas said. “They wanted to help me find peace…or something…and…” He started coughing and was unable to finish. The doctor placed a hand on his chest.
“Don’t worry about it. Rest…get your strength back…you can indulge an old man’s curiosity later. Get some sleep…I’ll be back to check on you in the morning.”
The doctor left his line of sight and he could hear the footsteps fading away. There was a click as the lights dimmed and a distant whoosh as the automatic door closed. Thomas laid his head back and stared at the ceiling. What happened down in that trench was wondrous, inexplicable, and unbelievable…all at the same time. But why did it happen? Was it just simple empathy? Thomas had no way of knowing. And at the moment, he was too tired to really care or put much thought into it.
Eventually, his eyes drifted shut. The distant sound of ivory keys lulled him to sleep…