The Greatest Challenge to Mankind Ever

“C’mon,” Charlie pleaded, “it’ll be so cool!  We’ll be the first people ever, in the history of civilization, to actually touch down on the deepest part of the entire ocean floor!”

 I could kill him—except that he’s already dead.

***

Charlie’s aspirations had always been just a little extreme.  Even as a kid, not satisfied with making only eight bucks a week tossing papers at front lawns, he got a job at the local supermarket, putting in twenty hours a week after school—stocking shelves, taking out the trash, and whatever.  Charlie’s goal was to be the store manager by the time he was nineteen.

And then last month, when he needed a thesis for his doctorate in geophysical oceanography, the screwball hatched the idea to explore the last frontier—the absolutely deepest part of any ocean anywhere in the world—the Challenger Deep in the Pacific’s Mariana Trench.

“It’s more than eleven thousand meters below sea level,” he said.  “That’s thirty-six thousand feet—seven miles deep!  The same distance down that airliners go up!”

I knew, from my work as a meteorological oceanographer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, that Charlie’s figures were correct.  But I also knew that what he was proposing was impossible.  His analogy was not new to me, but I’d never heard it used as a sales pitch for an expedition before.  And for a moment, I actually found myself intrigued by the idea.  I considered the thrill of taking part in it.  On the other hand, it was crazy.  And Charlie was my friend; I had to talk him out of it—if I could.

“It presents the greatest challenge to mankind, ever,” he said.

One of us had to maintain a sense of reality, so I tried to reason with him; If I could convince Charlie his idea was mediocre, it would be the water on his fire.  I tried to downplay the ostensible brilliance of his plan by reminding him of earlier great achievements by even greater people, foolishly imagining he would suddenly see his idea as being a kind of pipe dream after all.  It was a feeble attempt at best.

“What about Edison?” I tried.  “Don’t forget that he …”

“An eccentric,” he responded.

“The Wright brothers,” I countered.

“Peons.  Bike mechanics.  Grease monkeys.”

“Landing men on the moon, and all the other technological advancements we’ve made with satellites and radar and …”

“Kid stuff,” he interrupted.

I was out of ideas.

Charlie grinned, brushed aside my poorly executed repudiation, and picked up where he’d left off.  “I’m going to do this … and I want you there with me.”  He paused for a moment.  And then, timing it just right for maximum effect, he went in for the kill.  “It’ll be good for your career,” he crooned.

At that point—having met my obligation as adversarial but caring friend—I not only resigned myself to cooperating with him but actually allowed myself to become excited about the prospect.  “Oh, what have I got to lose?” I blurted.  “When your number’s up … besides, how many people get to say they died in an implosion seven miles under?  Maybe they’ll put us on a postage stamp.”

Charlie grinned again and nodded in agreement.

Still, there were the logistics to consider, and I still had some doubts.  “Wait a minute,” I said, recalling the limits of even the world’s most advanced submersible.  “Shinkai can make it to only sixty-five hundred meters.  How are we going to get down there?”

“I’ve already made arrangements with a guy I know in structural engineering at MIT.  He’s been working on a submersible that can do it,” he explained.

“I’m listening,” I said, still a little pessimistic.

“This guy’s been working with someone over at Scripps in San Diego.  He’s come up with a hull design he insists will maintain integrity to depths of thirteen thousand meters!”

“Go on,” I prodded.

“It’s simple logic,” he explained.  “Shinkai can go to sixty-five hundred meters because its hull is … what, maybe a half-meter thick?  Well then, the BOSS can go to thirteen thousand because its hull is … I don’t know … thicker.  It’s about twenty feet long; it’s designed for 15,000 psi.”

“BOSS?”

“Beyond Oceanic Submersible Standards,” was his casual reply.

“Still, I have a funny feeling,” I protested.  “Exactly how thick is the hull?”  I didn’t really care; I just wanted to tick him off.

“I don’t know!” he shot back. “Look … they made the hull out of some carbon-fiber thing—with strong walls, okay?  Why do you think he’s at MIT?”

“Okay, so … is there any room left in there to breathe?” I probed.

“They asked Boeing the same thing when they proposed the 747,” he replied, becoming truly exasperated.

Another airplane analogy.  I started to doubt his choice of vocation.  “Maybe you should consider aviation technology,” I suggested dryly.

“Listen, I hear Branson is working on something—as we speak.  And Cameron too.  We’re running out of time if we’re going to be the first.  And I’m going down there—with or without you.  Are you in?”

I was resigned.  “When do we leave?”

***

Everything was going just fine until the storm hit.  Knuckle-nuts Charlie was so gung-ho on getting started, he disregarded the weather reports; he didn’t want to hear anything that would mess up his plans.  We were a thousand miles off the coast of Japan—almost at the Challenger Deep—when a major cold front not far from us slammed into a major warm front also not far from us.  And we’d found ourselves in some serious trouble.

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No one wanted to radio for assistance—they kept saying it would blow over.  What they really meant was the mission was too significant—too historic—to put off.  Out on deck, straining to be heard above the tearing wind and rain, I tried reasoning with Charlie—pleading with him—as he checked the submersible’s fastenings.  He pretended to consider my suggestions as he then scrutinized the crane and bulwark alignment.  Finally, he responded to my pleas.  Charlie shouted, “We’re almost there!  They won’t be able to come out in this weather for us anyway!” he rationalized.

Large Swell - Edited

After two hours of holding off the inevitable, everything finally went over and under.  The storm’s ferocity was too much for the others, and out of a crew of sixteen, I, alone, have survived.  While everyone was arguing about what to do, I secured a life raft to my body and tossed it—and myself—into the pounding waves.  Even the submersible is gone now; the hatch was left open and it flooded as soon as it broke from its launch and hit the water.  Charlie’s BOSS made it to the bottom of the ocean, all right.

I was tossed about all night.

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When the storm finally abated and the swells calmed I was able to watch the fins circling.

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I’d searched the sky for hours, certain that a rescue team would arrive to pluck me from the world’s deepest water at any moment.  But the hours rolled out into days.  It gave me plenty of time to think.  I couldn’t believe it!  It was supposed to have been a history-making expedition—not a blasted survival test!

***

And so, here I am, still adrift in the open sea.  I’m thirsty.  I’m tired.  I’m hungry.  I’m really ticked off at Charlie.  My lips are cracked, and I can almost hear my sunburned skin crackle like angry parchment when I move.

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But this time … I really hear one!  I really do!  It’s a plane!  “Oh, thank You, Lord!”  I’m being rescued!

***

“Look!” the pilot called out as he banked left.  “It’s a raft!”  His copilot leaned over to see. 

“Finally!,” the copilot shouted, reaching for a first-aid kit.  “I hope he still has some food and water!”

The low-fuel alarm blared.  “I swear, Jack,” the pilot said as he lowered the flaps to prepare for a rough landing, “if we ever get out of this, I’ll never forget to stow the life raft again.”

 

The End

Shark - Edited

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