back

The Sladen Suit


I was the third man to enter the Sladen suit.  Under the watchful eye of the others, I unfurled the long rubber entry tunnel situated athwart the umbilicus and insinuated myself into it, breathing the stale sweat of the pair who had gone there before me and who were, to a man, dead.

As a precaution, the Sladen suit had been modified, sturdy leather straps being added to the thighs and shoulders, and by these in turn was it affixed to the bulkhead by sturdy brass rings.  It stood there, erect and facing me.  It was impossible for me not to think of myself, just before I spread the walls of the empty tunnel and worked my way in, as clambering into a person rather than an apparatus.  The faceplate was screwed down and rusted shut, immovable despite our best efforts.  The rebreather device had been verified from the outside but whether it worked within it was impossible to say without establishing residence within the suit itself.

We had been lost for days, floating in a weather and welter that rendered our instruments useless.  Our provisions ran low and then ran out.  Our faces had become more and more gaunt and our responses increasingly blunted as we abandoned the deck and huddled below, listening to the vessel groan and creak around us.

Soon, the captain was found dead, a diving knife pushed through his heart.  The knife was an antique, from well before the war, possessed of a flick-tipped 7-inch steel blade and a solid brass hilt, the knife-end of the hilt threaded so it could be screwed into its sheath.  Nobody claimed ownership of the knife, though nobody was of a mind to revenge the captain either, blaming him as we did for the predicament in which we found ourselves.

We swabbed up the blood, but we did not know what to do with the body.  At first we stored it in an empty larder, thinking to cast it overboard once the winds had fallen.  But they did not fall, and after a day or two the stench was such that we could not bear the idea of him there, near us, and threw dice to see who among us would dispose of him.

The losers were the twins, Tore and Stig.  Grumbling, they donned their slickers and dragged the corpse up the ladder and then struggled the hatch open and pulled themselves out into the maelstrom and disappeared.

They were gone for a long time.  Only one of them came back.

 

At first we thought it was Tore who came back, but though he looked like Tore he claimed to be Stig.  According to Stig—unless he was Tore after all—they had dragged the captain up through the hatch and then let him flop out onto the deck, where he caught in the wash and slid across and away to catch in one of the vents meant to allow the water to drain, his arm sticking out but the rest of him caught and too big to go through.  Tore cursed and let go of the hatch and started toward him.  Stig tried to call him back but the wind was too great for Tore to hear and the wind too was trying to close the hatch on his arms and for a moment he thought the arms would be broken.  Stig saw his twin thread his way, staggering, across the deck, and then the ship dipped downward and a foam-flecked wall of water loomed up.  Tore saw it too, Stig claimed, for he stopped and remained motionless, staring up—or at least that was what, through the rain and darkness, it looked like he did.  Then the wave crashed hard over the deck and it was all Stig could manage to keep hold of the lip of the hatch.  Even then he thought for a long moment that he was going to drown.  When the water drained enough that he could breathe and see, Tore was gone.  The captain’s body, though, still remained, pressed against the vent, rocking softly back and forth as the water eddied around it.