Updated: Mar 1
I won’t tell you the exact location of the event as what we did was highly illegal and, on top of everything else, I don’t need a criminal investigation on my hands.
I would also like to stress that our intentions were innocent. We really were only there for scientific research, all of which had been signed off by the relevant authorities and we certainly meant no disrespect. Desecration was never on our agenda.
But things don’t always go to plan.
Since the sunken wreck was a designated war grave, it is completely closed to tourism and off limits to morbid thrill-seeking. Permission is required to study it and, even then, only from the outside.
No living person is allowed inside that ship.
I had been part of the project for some time. The control rooms were located on a floating platform above the wreck and our primary purpose was to investigate the ship and its overall condition and, if possible, to determine the integrity of the vessel itself. There was still fuel in there and if there were going to be any leaks we needed to know. A marine biologist and a military historian from the local university had been piggy-backed onto our investigation for good measure.
We had completely mapped the external surface using sonar and had had some success sending small rovers into the first two decks. We didn’t expect to find too much in those floors due to the sediment build up, and the oxygen levels were high enough to have destroyed anything organic that could be there. The pictures and video we got back largely resembled a ship-shaped reef – crustaceans, plants, and the occasional fish. There was nothing to suggest that humans had ever lived there and only the square rooms and doorways gave it away.
The lower portion, decks three and below, could be a different ball-game, though. It was believed that the oxygen levels were lower down there and there could possibly be less sediment too. Maybe we could find something more interesting.
Unfortunately, the first rovers we’d tried to send that low proved to be problematic. We had to release the cables ourselves making it difficult to get them out again as the wires had a tendency to get caught up. Our solution to this was a new robot with a self-winding cable. Though piloted from above, this little guy travelled along under its own steam, winding and un-winding as necessary and was much more reliable. An expensive but very welcome addition to the team.
Before the incident, we had sent the rover in on two occasions and had made some decent headway. The video it sent back was exciting – clothes hanging on hooks that would never have survived on the upper decks, paper with the writing still legible. For the first time this relic actually looked like a ship, rather than a strange museum. A place where sailors had lived… and died.
We were in the control room, watching the screen. The rover was drifting slowly through what looked like a mess hall – we could make out the tops of tables above the sentiment which artificially raised the ship’s floor. A few still had ceramic plates on them.
Alan, the rover’s operator, shook his head in wonder. ‘Crazy,’ he murmured, ‘you almost expect to see people sitting there, eating.’
Lina, in the chair next to him, gave an “mmm” of agreement, her head resting on her hand as she watched the feed. ‘Just think,’ she said. ‘No one has seen this for seventy years.’
She looked up at me. ‘Do you think we’re likely to see any remains?’
Generally that was a subject we tried to avoid but on these lower decks it was a more pertinent question than on previous missions.
‘I doubt it,’ I said. ‘The sediment has probably buried anything that’s left.’
And if we did find anything, we’d drift right on past. We were there to document the ship, not bodies.
On the screen a doorway grew closer. Lina looked down at the map on the desk in front of her.
‘This corridor leads down to one of the fuel tanks. There’s also an officer’s cabin off to the side.’
‘Ok,’ I said. ‘Alan, if you can get in there, take a quick look in the cabin first. Take a sample of the sediment for Katherine, then we’ll check the tank.’
Katherine was a marine biologist interested in the kind of life forms we might find in such a low oxygen environment. She appeared at that moment, with a tray of tea for us all and grinned at me.
‘You bring me stuff, I bring you stuff.’ She placed the tray down and looked at the screen. ‘Nice.’
The rover moved gently through the doorway of the cabin, its flashlight moving slowly over the contents inside; the tops of cupboards, a bed, a sink.
‘Oh my goodness,’ gasped Katherine. ‘Did you see that? The light reflected there. Is that a mirror?’
Alan piloted the rover closer to the sink and up. Katherine was right; there was a mirror hanging over the sink and it was miraculously still clean enough, at least in a few places, to see a reflection of our little robot.
‘Take a look at yourself, buddy,’ grinned Alan.
We all smiled at the image…and then all flinched.
‘What was that?’ Said Lina.
I wasn’t sure, but it looked like either the flashlight had briefly flickered off… or something had passed in front of it.
I hesitated for a moment but nothing else appeared on the screen. ‘Alright Alan,’ I said. ‘Let’s get that sample and head to the tank.’
Alan nodded and we watched the screen as a little metal arm appeared holding a glass vial. It scooped up some of the sediment in the sink and then retracted. The rover turned slowly and began its journey back to the door.
And then, with a little jerk, it stopped moving. Alan moved the controls back and forth a few times but nothing happened.
‘Um,’ he said.
We checked the readings and, as far as we could tell, the rover was working fine. It was still receiving the signal, still trying to move and the winding mechanism hadn’t broken.
‘It’s caught on something,’ said Katherine despondently.
After that there was a lot of discussion. The law was clear: We couldn’t go in after it.
‘My position is this,’ said Lina, ‘ethically, we’re not doing anything wrong. We need that rover to investigate this ship and determine whether it’s a danger to the surrounding environment and if we lose this one, who knows when we’ll get another? We’re not here to kick up sediment and steal bones. We’re not taking selfies and laughing at the dead. If we go in and get the bot we’ll be doing something illegal, but I don’t believe we’ll be doing anything wrong.’
I glanced at Alan. The look on his face made it very clear that, although nervous about the consequences he agreed with Lina. He loved that little rover.
Katherine cleared her throat. ‘I would rather like my samples.’ She looked at me. ‘But you’re in charge here, Jamie, and if you decide that we should leave it, I won’t make a fuss.’
I sighed and rubbed my face. This was a bad idea. Such a bad idea. If we got found out…
But I wanted the rover back too.
‘Alright,’ I said. ‘I’ll go. You’ll all stay up here. The fewer of us that do this the better. I’ll go straight in, un-hook the bot from whatever it’s stuck on and then get the hell out of there.’
We moved quickly. An unexpected visit wasn’t particularly likely but we were all on edge from the moment the decision was made and wouldn’t be calm until the rover was free and I had returned to the surface.
I suited up and dived into the water, descending quickly to the wreck. I followed the rover’s cable down to the entry gap and then hesitated. No one had been inside this ship, alive anyway, for seventy years and I was about to break that trend.
I swam in.
There was a frisson of excitement in my chest as I moved through the rooms of the upper deck, my flashlight illuminating the rooms as I passed through. Exhilaration from my own scientific curiosity certainly, but also undoubtedly from doing something forbidden. I was looking at things that weren’t supposed to be seen.
I reigned in my constant temptation to leave the rover, for just a little while, and to explore on my own. This was a dangerous place to be, both because of the consequences of being discovered down here and because it was an unknown, unmapped environment, especially in the lower decks.
I followed the rover’s cable further down, barely squeezing through a gap more suited to a robot than a human in full scuba gear, and down onto the third deck. My heart pounded with excitement and I couldn’t deny that I would likely remember this as a highlight of my life, even if I could never tell anyone about it.
Alan’s voice came through over my radio. ‘Ok, Jamie. Just a bit further to the mess hall and then straight ahead.’
I gave a nod, even though he couldn’t see me do so.
‘Good good,’ he said. ‘Nearly there then. Be over soon.’
I suspected his reassurances were as much for himself as for me.
I swam onwards through the hall, the gentle movement of my fins causing the sediment to swirl lazily up behind me and I kept one hand loosely wrapped around the cable in case my vision became obscured.
I paused as I approached the officer’s cabin. The fuel tank was just down the way – I could get there and back faster than the rover could. Would it be so bad if I just went and took a look?
Stop it, I told myself. Free the rover and get out. Damage limitation!
I moved tentatively into the room. The rover was a few feet away from the sink, its light shining up at the ceiling. Whatever had caught it had caused it to tip backwards somewhat. I moved over to it and peered down.
There appeared to be something wrapped around the bot’s metal arm and, as I reached down to remove it, I wondered what it could be and how it had become entangled so quickly. The visibility in the room wasn’t great as I had caused the long undisturbed sediment to swirl up around my face. I moved in a little closer, trying to prise whatever the thing was from the rover. It was pale and it felt stiff, almost like roots under my fingers, gripping hard onto the metal. I started to wonder if I would be able to remove it without a knife.
And then whatever it was suddenly sprang open and there was a moment of perfect clarity as my flashlight fell fully onto the thing. The sediment in the water cleared for just a moment and allowed me to make out for the first time what had caught our rover.
I don’t remember much of my flight out of the ship. I swam faster than I ever had before and the journey was just a flash of rooms and swirling sediment as I fled through the wreck. I kicked up to the first deck and out of the entry gap, barely managing to keep my head about me enough to avoid ascending to the surface too rapidly. My heart pounded as I pulled upwards until I broke the surface. I stripped the mask from my face, staring up at the sky, and took a moment to catch my breath before I made for the platform.
Lina and Katherine were waiting for me on the deck.
‘What on earth happened?’ Asked Katherine, looking concerned. ‘You tore out of there like crazy!’
‘Nothing,’ I gasped. ‘Nothing happened. I just…panicked a little.’
Lina gave me a friendly pat on the back. ‘Well, good job anyway. You freed the rover and Alan is bringing it back now.’
I nodded, trying to slow my breathing. Lina helped me out of my wetsuit and once changed I joined the others in the control room. We all watched the screen as the rover documented its return journey.
‘What was it caught on?’ Asked Alan, manoeuvring the robot out through the entry hole.
I hesitated for a moment. ‘Just some old cloth, I think.’
Alan nodded then glanced at the others.
‘No harm done, guys,’ he said. ‘So we keep this little adventure to ourselves, yeah?’
Lina and Katherine agreed with enthusiasm. Our little secret.
I nodded, saying nothing. They didn’t need to tell me not to talk about my illegal journey into a designated war grave, where I wasn’t supposed to be, to free a trapped rover.
Or the sight of the cold dead hand that gripped it.