Wow. That dinner…You wouldn’t expect gourmet on a scientific research station but, if nothing else, Sebastian likes to spoil his friends.
We began altogether, the Daedelus crew and the Sea Monk expedition team sitting on benches in the mess hall. We ate broiled eel, sliced lengthways and served in sesame oil; stir-fried octopus in two varieties first cut into bite sized pieces and served with watercress and chestnut in a red pepper sauté and whole miniature octopi that we ate like they were big fluffy marshmallows. These tasted wonderful, but the texture was such that I always felt like I was eating a squeaky dog-treat. There were generous servings of grouper and flounder, sole, mackerel, snapper and herring both sushi-style and seared along the edges, served in seaweed wrappings with caviar garnish. All of this I enjoyed immensely, along with the incredible selection of wines and teas.
Commander Voldneyev Balic presided over the meal, thanking God for everything we ate and also thanking God for the future safety and success of our mission. He’s ex-military. I liked that he prayed to God, even though the prayer itself was pretty generic. Apparently the Russians haven’t caught up on the American fad of hating everything religious for its own sake, which is nice.
Desert was Charlotte Russe, a super-lightning-fatty pound cake stuffed with strawberries and custard. I ate two pieces before supper was finished and the crew of Daedelus was dismissed. I might have left too, but I was too full to move. The thirty-odd Jacques and Ivans shambled out the doors. There were only a handful of Ivannas, and just one or two Jaquelines. I caught almost none of their names aside from Balic, who sat with me and engaged me throughout the meal. The remaining few of us got up from our respective tables and brought our coffees and teas together in an adjacent lounge. Balic was invited to stay as a courtesy. He declined, saying we should enjoy our moment and take time to appreciate what we were about to accomplish.
The lounge was marked in black wood and gold leaf inlay. The billiards table reared upon clawed feet, its etchings barely visible in the warm light. The Russian lamps, typically gaudy, pushed a yellow fog into the room, giving the place an air of opulence and mastery.
As we helped ourselves to drinks, Sebastian began working the room and making introductions. He began with Lin Moniang, a Hong Kong Chinese and our mission commander. “This is one of my dearest, oldest friends” e said. “Even I will be taking orders from Lin. She has experience, but most importantly, she has a sharp mind and loves the sea.” Lin’s dark hair set off her square features, but I liked her immediately once I observed her ability to look startlingly innocent while saying clever things.
“Hello” he said. “I look forward to ordering all of you around.”
Sebastian continued, putting his arms fatherly around a Bahamian young lady with blue eyes and black hair. “Darren and Sofia Selkie were my first investors. When I decided to stop playing with other people’s daughters, they not only loaned me their wealthbut gave me their only child. Everyone, this is Jo our robotics expert.” Jo Selkie was crackling with scientific eagerness. “Tell them about your thesis, sweetheart.”
Jo looked slightly embarrassed, but it was obvious she possessed a rare intelligence. “I spent two summers studying the economic dialectic between underwater mineral deposits and emerging ecosystems.” It took me moment to realize I had no idea what any of those words meant. “But,” she continued, “the thing I really love is robots. Sebastian gave me an internship on Daedelus a few years ago. That’s how I got started. I’m thrilled to be back.”
Despite all her intellectual credentials, she was still young and had the hormones to prove it. She batted her eyes and brushed her hand on my arm, and then quickly looked to see if Sebastian was watching.
Kids these days.
Nessa was the lone Russian on the expeditionary team, and seemed to register the rest of the crew with some superiority. She and I hadn’t spoken much since that night dinner, except for the rather brief exchange in which she introduced me to her lawyer, her web developer, and her business advisor when we started the Elizabeth Mann Resurrection Fund. Come to think of it, we hadn’t spoken at all since then. I felt badly about that. Chris Millalobo, my ugly opposite, was there with his straw-broom beard, neopagan facial tattoos, and black fingernail polish. He and Sebastian made up the remainder of the party.
We all sat down and traded pleasantries. Sebastian treated me like he treated everyone else, which gave the impression that I deserved to be there and shouldn’t be laughed out of the airlock. Then came the big surprise of the evening.
Sebastian announced that, once again, he would not be part of the expedition.
“Amis. I won’t bore you. In three days you will descend into the depths of the world. If there is a Hades, it is not made of fire but of hydrogenated oxygen. And it is intense. You will likely suffer. Mon Dieu, we have lost so much already. You advance to preserve our planetary home. You press into adventure, into darkness, to excavate truth about underwater oil, aquatic life, and the multiplicity of hydrothermodynamics. This is the very fabric of life. You do this for yourselves, but also for Sergei, Chi, Dennis, Elisabeth, and Hollander the crew of the ill-fated Dignite. You do this out of our great love for the world. Prepare. Laugh. Get to know one another.
For myself I confess a great jealousy and sadness. I will not be joining you. God knows I have paid in tears for my inability to go with the last group. I will shed many more in the near future. It is my digestion. I beg you not to ask any questions for now.
Adieu. I am ever you acolyte.”
With his typical grandiosity, Sebastian made this little speech and then retired to his quarters. We were left reeling. The murmurs began almost immediately and people hived off into twos and threes, in sidebar conversation. I wondered if Liz and her colleagues felt then like we did now. I wonder if there was any sense of foreboding, just as I now wondered if there w any truth to the speculations about Sebastian. Did he suspect something would happen to them? And now, to us?
“Wow.” Jo said, blinking rapidly. “My mind is reeling.”
“Mine too,” I confessed. “There’s something unpleasant about this particular brand of déjà-vu.”
“You afraid we’re going to blow up, too?” Asked Chris.
“Don’t even say that.” Said Jo, shivering.
“I know Sebastian,” said Lin, “We’ve been friends for a long time. We’ve worked together, relied on each other, and learned to trust each other. He wouldn’t be bowing out if there wasn’t a good reason.”
Nessa nodded. “I’m worried for him.”
“His absence doesn’t do much to help my unease.” I said. “So far, nobody’s had a ton of luck down here.”
“Can we change the topic?” Jo asked.
“We can do anything you want.” Said Chris, sliding his arms around Jo’s bronze shoulders.
“David,” Lin began, shifting in her chair to break up the conversation, “I understand you created a little art project on the Dumbwaiter.”
I looked at Lin, curious. “I’m not sure I follow?”
“Weren’t you the one who drew the cat-eating monster?” Lin asked. The rest of the table turned and looked our way as I began to laugh.
“I think I’m going to enjoy your company,” I told her.
“You guys are cruel,” said Jo, leaning away from Chris momentarily to pull her tank top aside and show us the Hello Kitty tattoo on her shoulder.
“Are you pouting?” I asked playfully.
Jo let up a bit. “Yes.” She said, sticking out her bottom lip. Nessa didn’t look impressed, but Lin appreciated the camaraderie. This little exchange marked a shift in the evening’s tone. With only myself and the Sea Monk crew remaining we began to loosen up and enjoy one another’s company. I still felt out of place, even a little deceitful—after all, no one knew I wouldn’t actually be on the Sea Monk—but it was still fairly easy to get caught up in the revelry.
Toward the end of the evening Chris gave a speech. He’s such a weirdo. He looks like a cross between Santa’s hateful brother and Satan’s Chia Pet. “I’d like to toast each of you,” he said, “beginning with the ladies.” Oh great, I thought. “Nessa, Russian royalty and porcelain doll. Here’s to advancing your science and, hopefully, our species.” We all raised our glasses. Nessa blushed a little, but I couldn’t tell if it was in shame or anger. “And Jo,” Chris slurred her name around, warming up to it in his mouth, “here’s to you and I and all the other cat lovers in America.”
“I’m from the Bahamas.” Jo said, her glass wavering awkwardly in the air.
“Not down here you’re not.” He replied.
Nessa leaned over to me and whispered in my ear. “I don’t know what he means.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I replied, “just drink the toast.”
Chris continued his way around the room. “I’d like to toast myself for being the best underwater pilot in the solar system.” I neglected to tip my glass. “And I’d like to toast our Mission Commander for selecting such an appetizing crew.” Nessa in particular, is very fetching while Jo is very…nubile. But Chris seemed to be doing all this in good, albeit slightly drunken, fun.
Until he got to me.
“But I’ve saved the best toast for last,” he said. “I would like to thank David Mann for contributing his tremendous wealth of useless knowledge.” I tried hard not to catch all the sympathetic glances. “The good news, David, is that you’re not a total oxygen vacuum. You tell good stories. You’re like our own private Hans Christian Anderson.” Chris lifted his glass. “Let’s drink to bed-time fables about Jewish-myths and divine child abuse!” Everyone was squirming by this point. Lin rose to my defense but I got out of my chair before she did. I thought it was time to show my cards.
“Since it’s a night for speeches, and since my participation has already been called into question, let me explain why I’m here.” Everyone looked relieved that I was standing up for myself. “In the old stories of the Hebrew Bible the seas represented spiritual and social chaos. The Sea s terrifying, especially to a pre-industrialized people. It s full of unknowable beasts and disastrous storms. People drowned. Ships wrecked. This is why St. John describes heaven as having no more sea, indicative of the tranquility we know in the presence of God.” I remember trying to get to the point here, as religious suspicion began settling onto people’s expressions. ”Youre all here to conquer the sea. . Im looking to see if God really is Lord over the Waters. I want to know whether Elisabeth is at rest in His watery paradise. Youre going to discover what’s at the bottom of the world. Im going to discover what’s at the bottom of my heart.”
I’d love to tell you that raucous applause followed, but everyone just looked at me like I wasn’t wearing pants. That may have done more harm than good. My ugly opposite seemed to enjoy it, though, raising his glass and one eyebrow in a mocking toast to my faith.
I hope that guy gets eaten by Jaws.