(North Atlantic 41o43'35" N, 49o56'54" W)
The depth-gauge of the deep-sea submersible tracked the ninety minute descent down the umbilical line, through ever darkening blackness. Its bank of sixteen powerful halogen searchlights revealed nothing, and merely magnified the fear of what might lay, just beyond their reach.
The digital gauge settled on 12, 460 feet as they reached the seabed and the sudden loss of downward motion turned the stomachs of the men within the capsule. They cruised forward briefly and there she was, a leviathan of rusting steel looming from the murk; a dark sarcophagus that had inhabited this world devoid of light, for ninety-five years.
Sheridan flew the sub over the bow rail, still beautifully intact and majestic as the day she sailed. He spoke into his radio. “Ok, topside we’ve reached depth and all systems are green.”
The radio blurted its staccato, static-laced response. “Roger that, Orpheus, we’re reading green across the board and you are go for taxiing to the stern.”
Dan Sheridan was an ex-navy submariner who now freelanced and spent his days babysitting rich sightseers beneath the waves. This was punctuated by the occasional spot of salvage and wreck hunting. He had no qualms about who he worked for and neither could he afford to, being it seemed, eternally bound to a life that left him always one job away from bankruptcy.
A mercenary nature was a prerequisite in this field and this modern day pirate was born for it. The first thing he did on leaving the navy was toss his moral compass overboard. The second thing was to lose the buzzcut and grow his hair long. His blond mane gave him the look of an eighties soft rock star and his muscular frame was entirely too large to be sardined in this can on a daily basis.
Sheridan had piloted to Titanic many times, but no charter had ever offered him so much cash for his services and he wasn’t cheap. He turned to his co-pilot “Ok, Sam you take her from here, slow and easy to the stern.”
The skinny, coloured man smiled. “Slow and easy is the only speed this tub has, boss. Do you want the scenic route across the debris field?”
Sheridan turned, eyeing his passenger. “May as well, the man’s paying the freight.”
He watched as his passenger, crouched in long-sitting, opened the small steel flight-case in his lap. It held a small radio remote which linked with the equipment they had mounted on Orpheus’s hull -- some kind of VHF antenna. Sheridan had checked it out thoroughly and, satisfied it would in no way interfere with the workings of his rig, had agreed to its use.
He was in the dark however as to what booty they were after. More money was the answer offered to most of his questions and he was after all no stranger to expeditions of dubious legality. “Ok, Mr…” He paused as if silently laughing at what he was sure was a fake name, not that he cared. “Mr Stark…we have two hours down here then we have to start our eight hour ascent…so let’s get to it.”
Mr Stark turned a frequency dial until it read 17MHz and toggled a button marked Transmit.
“Are we cooking?” asked Sheridan.
Stark, just nodded and continued watching the screen before him.
“Alrighty then, Mr Stark, the stern is 600 metres away and were buzzing along at a scary top speed of three kilometres per hour. Well reach her ass end in about fifteen minutes. Meantime, you might want to look out the porthole at the debris field, it’s a once in a lifetime experience …unless you’re me of course.”
Without raising his head from the screen Stark merely offered a dry “No thank you.”
Sheridan shrugged his shoulders, exchanging bemused glances with Sam as he lay his large frame back down. Through the six inch glass one of the ship’s massive boilers ghosted past. It was in fact one of these steel hulks that was the first image to be seen in 1985 by Bob Ballard’s team, confirming they had found the wreck.
They continued on and passed an array of five rows of perfectly stacked china plates. The wooden crate which held them had long ago been eaten away to leave them gently lazing on the seabed. Sheridan looked back over his shoulder, as if loath to turn his back on this passenger and as he did so he heard a faint beep emit from the box in the man’s lap. It repeated its pulse in breaks of seven seconds or so. Stark’s eyes raised from the screen, his face bathed in its green glow.
“It is near, Mr Sheridan, about seventy-metres straight ahead on this heading.”
Sheridan regarded him with some confusion. “Well unless I’ve lost a transponder, Mr Stark, whatever you’re after is not in the stern of that ship.”
Stark, still without emotion, replied. “An unexpected good fortune, it shall expedite recovery.”
Sheridan knew he was right, anything in the belly of that ship would be a cold proposition to retrieve. But the debris field, that was a whole other sport.
Sam had co-piloted Sheridan for many years in environments that would scare anyone, but he’d had a bad feeling about this trip and was now cursing his scientific mind for disregarding his intuition. From the get-go he didn’t like the look of this fare and was now wishing he’d never come along, fantastic money or not. That same intuition was now telling him that whatever they were after -- might be better left down here.
They flew on and passed a single, lady’s heeled shoe. Leather was more resilient than cotton, wool or even wood, it tended to survive the sea’s touch. The bleep became more frequent until every two seconds it pierced the silence.
“Ok, Sam…ahead half-full now.” Sam obliged, downshifting the Orpheus from crawl to snail pace. The bleeps merged into one continuous tone and Sheridan ordered. “All stop!” Through the port hole he could see a single, rat-tailed fish, snooping around the ocean floor. Sheridan engaged the aft lateral thrusters and Orpheus began to rotate, she was slow but highly manoeuvrable. He had come about 180-degrees when he killed the engine, something had caught his eye.
He’d done enough marine archaeology to know that the contours of the seabed directly beneath them were anomalous. There was something under the silt, he had no doubt. Long in the tooth as he was at this game he still got a tingle in the back of his bull-size neck as he looked from the bump in the ocean floor to the box in Stark’s lap with its beep tone filling the cockpit.
“Ok, Sam I’ll take the arms...you man camera-2…two metres due south if you please.” Sheridan swapped positions with Sam and he cranked the two robotic arms on Orpheus’s bow into life. Slowly he lowered them to gently tease away the layer of sediment, with skill that only thousands of hours of flying time could foster. His surgical dexterity provoked only a small cloud of silt to bellow upwards, a heavier touch and they would have had zero visibility for twenty-minutes; a lifetime when you have such short windows for recovery.
They watched the monitor with camera-2’s feed and as the cloud died away could discern a few objects obviously of man made geometry. A square pile of what might be mushy letters which the robot arm had sliced through, sat atop some larger sturdier looking items, one of which was immediately identifiable as a metal box. The arrangement of the items told Sheridan instantly that it was the contents of a crate that had long ago been eaten away by fish, bacteria and marine worms.
“Document everything, Sam…get as much footage as you can.” Sheridan repeatedly manoeuvred the robot arms to pick up the objects and place them in the crate secured on Orpheus’s bow. Like a claw-game in an amusement arcade he scooped them up, only this machine wasn’t rigged, it held fast and he got a prize every time. Within fifteen minutes he had recovered the dissolved crate’s contents and was satisfied that whatever was responding to the VHF vibrations being emitted from Stark’s antenna was now in his crate.
“Ok, Mr Stark…we’re going to ascend a short distance, if we have the piece you’re after, the bleep should stay continuous. If we’re moving away from it and leaving it behind…it will pause between beeps again…yes?” It was a question only in so far as Sheridan thought he was familiar with all types of sonar and echo-sounding equipment but he was at a loss as to what could be giving such a clean signal and yet date from 1912 -- it made no sense to him.
“You are quite right, Mr Sheridan.”
They began to rise off the ocean floor and the beep remained without pause, one long continuous tone as they continued their slow climb towards the surface. Whatever they had found would see the light of day in eight hours, for the first time in ninety-five years.
With each metre closer to the surface, Sam felt increasingly uneasy, claustrophobic even, not a good quality in his line and not a problem he’d ever experienced before. He repeatedly glanced at the oxygen gauge and more than once tapped the glass panel as if unsure of its reports. Experienced as he was, he knew this was a futile gesture; as pointless as kicking a car’s tyres to test its worth prior to purchasing. But still he tapped its facing and still it vexed him.
Sheridan merely spent the ascent mentally spending the finder’s bonus he had coming on top of his hefty charter fee. Hole in one he mused; maximum profit for minimum effort. Am I lucky or am I just good?
On board the surface vessel Aurora, Sheridan alighted from Orpheus and instructed his deck crew to stand down; a highly unusual order, which left only himself, Sam and Stark to inspect the contents of the crate. They gathered around the metal cage as Sheridan’s shovel hands gently removed the lumps of mushy paper, some of which were undoubtedly books. Some had pages which, although completely black, Sheridan knew could restore to reveal completely readable text. He removed these artefacts however in a desultory fashion, obviously keen to reach something beyond them.
At the base of the cage, amongst the slush, sat the metal box; corroded to reddish brown but completely intact. Its hasp wore not one but two oxidised padlocks. Sheridan had no doubt that what they were after lay inside. Any salvager knows, metal boxes invariably contain something valuable and a two-lock coffer was like a neon sign saying the goods are here. It was the X that always marks the spot.
He lifted it from the pen and sat it on the deck. Then taking a hammer and chisel from the deck toolbox he gently tapped the rusted padlocks. They held firm but the hasp, covered in tiny rusticles and obviously of higher sulphur content, yielded. He prized his chisel under the lid and levered it open as its hinges crumbled. Inside, the box was awash of sludge, which glooped out onto the deck revealing a pulp, leather-hide book which was adorned in jewels. The leather had resisted the touch of the ocean well, although many of the tiny gemstones had drifted loose from their bindings and lay in the floor of the box.
Sheridan identified it immediately, whispering in wonder. “The Great Omar.”
Stark ignored him and just stared at the front of the book -- as though he could see something beyond its matt blackened cover. Then for the first time, Sheridan saw Stark’s lips curl into a slow smile. It was as economical as all his gestures and, with a look of surprised recognition; he uttered one single word. “Jibril.”
Sam, who was raised a Catholic but not by nature a religious man, blessed himself and walked towards his quarters.
Stark took the box from Sheridan’s hands and merely said. “I will arrange for your finder’s fee to be transferred immediately as we make harbour, Mr Sheridan.” Sheridan offered no argument. He knew he was being paid far more than this artefact could possibly be worth, but still couldn’t figure what beacon it had emitted to let them track it so effectively. He was also curious as to what had Sam so spooked, knowing him to be a veteran of many far more hairy expeditions. Hell this had been easy, they hit pay dirt on what was to be effectively a recon trip to test the equipment -- it doesn’t get sweeter than that…ever.
He caught Sam up as he was going below decks. “Wait up, Sam…what’s with you? You look like the bogey man slapped you around.”
Sam, ashen faced, just stared blankly at him. “Did you check the O2, boss?”
Sheridan, a little confused, said. “Of course I did, Sam. How could I not what with you sniffing the gauge every few minutes. There was plenty, no problems.”
“That’s just it, boss…there was plenty...too much in fact,” Sam removed a small notepad from his breastpocket. “Here’s the log from yesterday’s dive, it was slightly shorter than today’s, a total of ten hours thirty-two minutes compared with today’s dive-time of ten hours forty. Check the figures, boss we used less O2 today than yesterday despite it being a longer dive and having a passenger when yesterday it was just you and me. You know these numbers don’t add up and I prepped Orpheus myself before diving, everything checked out.”
Sheridan looked at the numbers scribbled in Sam’s log and knew they made no sense. “So what are you saying, Sam?”
“I’m saying…” Sam stopped, as if reluctant to verbalise what was on his normally scientific and rational mind and then thinking fuck it -- he committed. “I’m saying…it’s almost as if Stark wasn’t even there with us on that dive boss.”
Sheridan’s eyebrows arched in surprise and scratching his mane, he said. “Maybe he was just holding his breath.” Despite his joke, he could see Sam was still uneasy and unsatisfied so offered “I’ll get Larry to run full diagnostics on the O2 system, Sam, you get some sleep.”
He placed a shovel hand on Sam’s shoulder. “Good work today, Sam, it was a strange shift and no mistake but tonight…the drinks are on me.”
Sam turned and started up the narrow corridor and Sheridan called after him. “What did he say, Sam…Jibril?”
Without turning to face him Sam replied. “It’s Arabic; it means…the angel Gabriel.”