“Charity is business. In business, people spend money to get what you have to offer. With a charity, they just give you their money. A good charity has smart people that understand that. A noble charity has people that care about the cause. I am smart. More importantly, I care. That is why I go out and get their money. Not because I am predatory, but because I am a true believer. I believe the ocean is our life, and to survive the ecological desolation of our planet we must go deeper than ever before into ourselves back into the watery womb of the world.”
That was Sebastian’s little speech to me en route to the supertanker. He and I have been at odds for the past few days. Nothing major, you understand, just little grievances here and there. It is our shared love for Elisabeth that moves us beyond these petty squabbles.
Atargatis sits atop the ocean, way above the underwater station. Its a dirty boat, been retrofitted to accommodate a process known as acid leaching (which basically involves dumping highly toxic materials over top of really expensive ones so all the garbage covering up the money melts away). Not just a bit filthy–this place has inch-deep grime. Its soiledoul. The bathroom mirrors are cloudy and the water is covered with film. Have I mentioned Im something of a germaphobe? A place like this functions like a rodent nightclub. Every crawling thing comes to breed. Grease is their aphrodisiac. Industrial fumes make the ship’s belly a hotbox for vermin.
Sebastian has that a high percentage of the profits from his side of the venture go to charity. It’s funny somehow everything Sebastian says on the topic of charity seems to be about something other than charity. Not something evil orweird, but like it goes deeper than just good will. He had a younger sister who died when they were little. Ive asked Sebastian about her, but he never wants to talk about it. Sometimes I wonder if the girl could have been named Charity. She wasn’t, but the way Sebastian speaks about his mission to do good makes me think hes atoning for something.
Aren’t we all?
Sebastian graces magazine stands and the bulbs and flashes of the paparazzi assail him everywhere he goes. But for all their brilliance he still broods in a bit of his own darkness. For my part, I two kinds of paparazzi the same that follow Sebastian (though mine are less interested in my relationship status and more interested in my misfortune), and a kind of scriptural paparazzi. I go, bits of the Bible flash through my mind and remind me that I’m on display, that I’m meant to be doing something more with my life, that I’m about to be exposed. Only God reads the latter headlines, but they seem more important somehow.
We were only on board the tanker for a few hours, but it was enough to get a sense of the atmosphere. It was hot, stuffy, and full of ill-tempered Russian workers fulfilling every archetypal role of the proletariat. Everyone wore long pants, long sleeve t-shirts, and rough gloves. They never shaved, always spoke in grunts and ughs, and were built like casks. Twice I had to retreat all the way back down narrow hallways from which Id come, given the workers’ lack of interest in letting me squeeze in between them to get where I was going. I took a few wrong turnsnce to the commissary where Ivan and Pyotr (or whatever their names were) haggled for cigarettes and traded homemade vodka for military-issue bootknives.
I did not belong here.
I did meet one “interesting” fellow, Christopher Millolobo, the other American. Can’t say I’m overly fond of him yet, but he’s going to be our pilot for the expedition. He was sitting in a little corner of the Atargatis drawing cryptids on the wall in old grease with his finger.
I introduced myself. “I understand we’re about to be shipmates.”
He kept his finger on the wall, mid-portrait and raised his eyes without moving his head. “Yeah?”
“It was my wife, Elisabeth, who went missing.”
Chris went back to his finger-painting. “I’ve got her cat.”
“Joy?” I thought about this for a moment. I not really given much thought to the fate of Liz’s pet. I hate cats, and Joy was always a problem when I was around. “I guess I didn’t realize Joy would still be here.”
“Cats aren’t disposable, you know.”
“No” I said. “Of course not.”
Chris stood up, wiping his hands on his pants. I looked at his drawings. There was a mermaid and a loup garou, and something else I think was supposed to be a griffin. “Got a new name, though. Something better. Don’t say Joy. Her name’s Puss.
“Why Puss?” I asked.
He looked at me like I was the biggest idiot alive. “Because she’s a cat.”
I leaned against the opposite wall, thinking about how badly I wanted to get out of this conversation. I didn’t even think he would mind. But Nessa and Sebastian were holed up somewhere, presumably continuing their earlier conversation about “borrowed” Japanese technology, and Chris was actually a pleasant conversationalist compared to all the Ivans and Pyotrs on board.
“Have you been to the Daedelus before now?” I prompted, thinking this conversation was likely the best way to pass the time.
“Listen, Mann,” he started as Nessa came around the corner. “I don’t really want to talk. You can keep talking. But this is the last question I’m answering from you.” Nessa stood beside me, listening, while Chris made motions to include her in his explanation. “Except for the past four days on shore leave, I’ve been on Deadelus since your wife took her long vacation. They called me to pilot the recovery sub. Then they left me there to keep the lights on and the generator running while everyone else went home. I’ve been there three hundred and thirty-two days. I’m the prince of the Daedelus, the governor. Even the gremlins tell me I’m awesome when I walk on board. Cool?”
“Yeah” I said “We’re cool.” At this his profoundly tattooed face jerked back toward the greasy canvas. He reached into his coat pocket. The heaviest metal-head music Ive ever heard began blaring through a set of white ear buds dangling around his neck.
“Man,” Nessa asked him “Why have headphones if you’re going to wear them like a necklace?”
His size twelve boots stomped the floor as if to prove that bad rhythm summoned anarchy. “Just so you’ll have a reason to gawk. Now shake your money-maker, princess.” He sneered, but thankfully turned away from us and put on his headphones.
Chris and I spoke again later. I don’t think he likes me. As we began comparing pedigrees it became obvious that things that get you a Doctorate of Theology are very different than the things that get you kicked out of first the Air Force Academy, and then from Yale part-way through a masters in mechanical engineering. I’m not sure how he got hooked up with Sebastian, but our benefactor says he’s got a good sense of the sea. Whatever that means.
Chris made me a nametag that says “my ugly opposite” lifting a pen from inside that coral-reef, reddish-brown beard of his and stabbing the word on masking tape in stubby letters. He stuck it on my back with a slap. That was about the time I fished my Bible out of my backpack. He did a double take, snorted, and then put his headphones on.
Works every time.
After tangling with Chris for those few minutes I went topside to get some fresh air. Seventy-one percent of the Earth’s surface is water. Standing against the railing of that tanker, getting ready to board the sub, and looking East out over the Kuril Islands and into the Pacific, that was an easy statistic to believe. “Less than five percent of the sea floor has been topographed” said. “Did you know this?”
“I think Liz might have mentioned it.”
“She was a remarkable young woman, David. I’m sorry you had such short time together.”
“Who knows?” I replied. “Maybe our story isn’t over.”
He clapped me on the back, smiling his million-dollar grin. “You’re right, of course. It is better to think of the ocean as a genie’s lamp than a miser’s purse. There’s so much we don’t know about the bottom, and even less about the space between here and there. We’ve got satellites and sonar hooked up on hundreds of radar arrays, hyperlinked across the networks of five continents, but we still know almost nothing. Given that four-fifths of all life on this planet is aquatic, we don’t even know the basic features of 1/1000 of Earth’s habitable real estate.”
“Not yet, you mean?”
Sebastian laughed. “Every time someone does what were about to do we find something our sonar couldn’t detect and our radar cannot see.”
Let the sea roar, and all the fullness thereof, said the Chronicler, but I bet he had no idea what it meant to put on an airtight suit and take a nautical stroll.