There’s a Cave Under Bikini Atoll. Horrors Lur…

I’m not supposed to tell the truth. You’re not supposed to hear this story. But I need you to know. We all need to understand what we’ve done.

I didn’t really know anything about Bikini Atoll when we left for the Marshall Islands. Just that the US had detonated a series of nukes there in the 40s and 50s. You’ve probably seen the video from the Baker detonation. A pale king of water vapor blooms under a thorny crown of radioactive dust. A fleet of decommissioned warships shudder as the shockwave rolls over them. It was a gag in a the Spongebob episode with the pie bomb.

Fortunately there was plenty of time to research on the way. For perspective: there’s a marine monument called Pacific Remote Islands that’s 300 miles closer to Hawaii than the Marshalls are to Papua New Guinea. It’s way out there. Between the small plane hops and 27 hour boat ride I learned all I could about the history and ecology of the islands.

We were headed out there to study the coral reefs that somehow, amazingly, still thrive despite being dosed with twenty three bombs worth of radiation. We think they might hold some clues as to how to help humans live longer and survive nuclear fallout.

We started diving almost the minute we pulled up, we only had enough funding left in our grant for a couple days there. Gotta love the whims of a representative government. There was an Office of Naval Research guy there with us, Thomas. Last name Thomas, I never actually learned his first. Now I know why. My professor (I won’t use his name. I don’t want him implicated in this) told me Thomas was there to see if our work would make us eligible for another season of funding. It might have been a half truth.

We all checked in at the surface, tapping ourselves on the top of our heads with a fist to signal “okay”, then we descended. My regulator hissed as I breathed in and gurgled as I breathed out. Everywhere around me warm, window-clear water shimmered with the tropical sun beaming onto the reef. Bright corals and sponges piled on top of each other and fish darted in and out of the crevices. We followed a transect line along the reef edge taking video and doing counts of some of the larger species. Nothing about that place would have suggested that 65 years ago the US’s largest nuclear test ever had washed over the exact site we were diving. Nothing that is until we hit the crater.

Slowly the reef got smaller, younger, less diverse until it petered out all together and we were staring down a steep slope into ultramarine darkness. Castle Bravo, 15 megatons, two and half times the force the researchers had intended. The scar left by the world’s first nuclear accident loomed ahead.

The transect stopped there and I turned to my professor expecting to see the thumb’s up meaning “go to the surface”. But he was staring at Thomas who was checking a slate he’d pulled from a pouch in his buoyancy vest. I could see a crudely drawn map on the underwater writing tool. He signaled for us to follow and started down slope.

The warmth of the South Pacific lagoon began to wash away as we descended. The increasing depth and my own hesitation combined to sap the heat from body. I caught a glimpse of my professor’s face through his mask. His eyes were roving about nervously and his skin was as white as a corpse. I understood why he was nervous, you don’t start a dive shallow and go deeper, that’s a textbook way to get a serious case of the bends. But what could I do? I was pretty sure the military guy wouldn’t listen to the grad student, no matter how articulately I could have argued my point in broken sign language.

I looked down at my depth gauge and felt relief that we were only about 60 feet down. A person could dive this far just by swimming. We’d need to do a safety stop to offgas nitrogen, but it wasn’t like we were going into suicidal depths.

I was so distracted looking at my gauge that I literally bashed my head into Thomas’ tank. The steel cylinder tolled like an ominous bell through the water. Thomas spun around, brandishing his dive knife. We were hovering just above a hole in the limestone. More fear than I would have expected from a navy diver drained out of his face when he realized it was only me. He motioned angrily for me to go first into the cave. I must have really bashed my head because I clicked on my dive light and went in without question. My professor followed behind, and Thomas brought up the rear.

After about a hundred yards of being surrounded on all sides by rock I started to notice the space above us opening out. I looked up and instead of seeing air trapped against stone I saw one of my bubbles pop at a surface. Thomas caught up and signaled to ascend. As we broke the water it was still pitch dark.

My professor’s face was lit from beneath by the eerie glow from our flashlights still under the surface. He popped his regulator out of his mouth, “Why did we come up so fast?!” he said. “We’re gonna get deco sickness.”

Thomas slid his mask off and glared at my professor. “That’ll be the least of your worries if you don’t keep quiet,” he growled softly.

“We’re still under the lagoon right?” I whispered. “The pressure should be equal then?”

“Jesus the kid knows more than you,” Thomas mocked. “No wonder you couldn’t figure out what was going on in here. Come on”

Thomas pointed his light at one wall and I could see shoreline. The air filled chamber continued into the darkness. We kicked over to the edge of the water and slipped out of our heavy gear. I pulled my own dive knife from my BCD, my flashlight held in the other. I didn’t like having no hand free in a cave, but I felt like I might want a blade with how on edge everyone was.

Thomas led the way. I hung back with my professor.

“Hey what’re we doing down here? Why didn’t you tell me about this?” I asked trying to hold back how pissed off I was.

“I’m sorry Simon. I wish I could have told you. We are still doing the study we came for, but we have to check this out too. They’re going to fund us indefinitely for showing Thomas this place. Think of how many people we could save if we can learn how to make DNA immune to mutation from radiation. No one will ever die of melanoma again. We can solve climate change with low-risk nuclear power. This research could save the world and they want to end it because costs a lot to get here.”

He had started to cry silently. I understood a little. His entire career had gone into learning about this lagoon. It would’ve been devastating to lose all that. My attitude softened a bit. I was about to ask what we were looking for when the echo of Thomas’ footsteps suddenly stopped.

In their place was a skittering sound. Longer, lower, and heavier than you’d expect, but still definitely skittering.

Ahead, as Thomas’ light fell on it, a mound of chitinous jointed legs and carapaces hissed.

A dozen coconut crabs shuffled out of flashlight beam and into dark burrows along the walls. They had been piled up on a body.

“Fuck,” I muttered, my voice muffled by rising vomit.

Thomas walked closer to inspect the corpse. The majority of the body’s skin was grotesquely white, like this person hadn’t seen the sun for decades. But there were also large, blistering red blotches all over, like they’d been selectively sunburned. The face looked gaunt and sallow. The hair was thin and dark with abundant gray streaks. Large clumps were missing. Bits of yellowish skull showed under the bald patches. The crabs had eaten away the upper lip and shining enamel grinned in the ruined face.

I was so lost in revulsion that it took several minutes before I noticed the body had on no shirt and was wearing a long skirt. It looked like it was made out of palm fiber. I had seen someone wearing a similar outfit greeting tourists at the airport on Majuro Atoll.

“What’s a Marshallese person doing down here?” I asked.

“This is a Bikinian,” said Thomas, rising from his inspection. “We relocated 167 people off the atoll before the tests started, but not everyone would go. The government had assumed they all died from the blasts or the radiation. At least until the doc here found this cave complex.”

I looked over at my professor and he nodded. “They’ve survived down here the whole time, but they must all be horribly sick. We have no idea how it’s possible. This person has endured acute radiation poisoning for six and a half decades, yet they clearly only died within the last few days.”

“But they don’t look very old, not more than 70,” I replied. “That means they were a kid during the detonations. This person died in the dark after a life of nothing but agony only because they wouldn’t get kicked out of their own home. What the fuck is wrong with you?!” I shouted at Thomas.

“Hey I wasn’t even alive you little shit. Don’t blame me for this. Besides the Soviets did a thousand times worse than us, and they would have spread that nightmare all over the globe if it weren’t for mutually assured destruction! So keep your righteousness to yourself!” he shouted back.

As his voice boomed into the tunnels around us, a shambling sound echoed back. I darted my light to the mouth of another cavern. In the arch of wet, alabaster limestone, six figures were limping rapidly towards us. I could see hatred in their eyes.

“Wait, we want to help you,” the professor held up his hands. They continued forward, lifting arms disfigured by mutation and covered in radiation burns. Something beyond normal disgust told me that I shouldn’t let any of these people touch me. They showed no recognition of the professors words. I grabbed him by the collar of his wetsuit and dashed down another tunnel. Thomas followed quickly behind.

I lost all sense of direction as we ran, but eventually I felt my ears pop. The pressure was getting less, which meant we were going up. I started paying attention to the slope of the floor. The shambling behind us had diminished so I was able to concentrate a little. As the caverns ascended, more and more stalactites started to appear. Water dripped from the ceiling as we entered a chamber filled with columns of soaking rock. The only way out was the way we had come.

Suddenly the shambling grew loud again again. Distressingly fast cycles of tap, scraape and heavy rasping breaths came echoing towards us from our only exit. I grabbed the professor and helped him clamber up the wet slope of a wall as far back in the cave from the mouth as we could get; hoping to get some high ground for our last stand.

Thomas brandished his knife in the middle of the chamber ready to fight to the death. As much as I hated him, he did look the pinnacle of American military sacrifice in that moment. Lit from below by the flashlight he’d tossed to the ground, his long shadow stood tall on the cave wall. The little US flag stamped on the neck of his wetsuit almost seemed to wave as the light flickered; its battery rapidly dwindling.

But as the six figures came sprinting into the room and his knife plunged into the first one’s shoulder he suddenly started screaming in agony. From the spot where his hand had touched the irradiated person’s skin I could see blackening fronds of burns racing up his arm. As the others piled onto him like the crabs had done to the corpse, Thomas hair thinned before our eyes and clumps cascaded to the floor. Right before the weight of the pile took him down he vomited heavily and the stench of hot bile filled the room.

“At least the water’s warm,” I heard the professor mutter confusingly. I looked over to see him with his hands on a stalactite for balance. It was leaning drunkenly and water was dribbling through it faster and faster; warm salty water.

“Move!” I shouted.

I wedged my back against the wall and double kicked the stalactite as hard as I could. It cracked at the base and water started rushing in. I kicked again. The cone of minerals crashed to the floor and the lagoon started flooding into the cave. The professor caught on and kicked at another stalactite.

The figures below slowly stood revealing Thomas’ crushed and burned corpse. They gazed up at us, unblinking, and started towards the bottom of our slope. Just then the professor landed another hard kick and the ceiling of the cavern bulged downwards. It lingered a moment that way, like a womb swollen with the weight of the entire Pacific, and then it burst.

I covered my head and neck and closed my eyes as slabs of limestone came thudding to the floor and hundreds of thousands of gallons flooded in. The force of the water blew the figures back into the tunnel. Gurgling screams and wails receded into the deafening rush of water. Over what felt like an eternity, but may only have been minutes, the other caverns flooded and the chamber we were in began to fill. I took a deep breath, grabbed the professor without looking and swam to the watery light that shone through the new cavern entrance.

I inhaled deeply as my head broke the surface. Relief washed over me at first, but then I saw the professor bobbing near me, face down, a red cloud blooming from his head. He’d been hit by the slab that he’d kicked free to save our lives. I swam over to him, hot tears streaming down my cheeks, my body shaking from the sadness, the fear, and the adrenaline. I dragged him to the beach nearby. I knelt silently weeping in the sand gazing blankly out at the lagoon. I vaguely remember seeing the wake of the dive boat and hearing the groan of the outboards coming towards me. But otherwise the atoll simply shone in the tropical sun while seabirds wheeled and called like it had done for millenia.

I was debriefed by the military before I got home. Officially, Thomas and the professor had made an error diving in a coral cave and gotten trapped underwater until they ran out of air. I had made it out, but had corked to the surface and lost my memory due to moderate decompression sickness depriving my brain of oxygen.

I’m not supposed to tell the truth. You’re not supposed to hear this story. But I need you to know. We all need to understand what we’ve done.

(source) story by (/u/PNWood_writes)

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