I’m writing this on my laptop, back on the Sea Monk. Or what’s left of it. The Monk is still partially flooded, though the water continues to drain, and there is a giant gash in the middle of the bridge ceiling. For now, it serves decently enough as a dormitory. Our original Atlantean guard has been standing outside for a long time. I’m not sure what to call that guy. Jailer? That’s what I thought he was, though now I think he’s more like our protector. We were escorted back, and once I clambered on board, I found my computer and popped open the casing. I laid out all the components on a blanket and dried them out. After several hours, I put it all back together again and crossed my fingers.
Leaning over the newly reconstituted laptop, I gingerly pressed the power button. “Lin!” I called out. “Check this out.”
“Your computer?” she asked.
“I’m surprised it works at all,” I said, pointing to the desktop. “I’m usually rewarded with the blue screen of death. That’s without being attacked by a sea monster. How strange that my PC, and two of my spare batteries, should work perfectly?”
“Now you can get to work transcribing those audio recordings you’ve been making. We’ll need the data.”
“Did you just give me an assignment?” I asked.
“Time to earn your keep, David,” she said, smiling and walking from the diveroom where I had been working.
Of course she’s right. The information I’ve been gathering could have some value. I should blog it, or publish it, or something. Maybe that’s a fairy tale, but it’s my game plan for when (or if) we get out of here.
The Atlanteans have more or less given us free reign of their city. They bird-dog us a little, following us around and always watching to see what we will do, but they never try to restrict our movements. They smile. They speak to us. Any attempts at exchanging names have been silly. None of us understand what they are saying in their scrapey cooing, but we have appreciated their efforts.
This place is marvel in a hundred directions. Firstly, let’s not forget that we are in a self-contained ecosystem ten thousand feet beneath the waves. Atlantis is honeycombed, and most of the people live in two-story caves.
The people live on the upper level of their comb. These hollows are surprisingly warm, given that the average temperature in the cavern must be below fifty degrees. The jelly doors really aren’t very common here. I’ve only seen one or two beside that of our “jail.” There is, however, an incredible amount of biodiversity. The bottom part of each “comb” is dominated by a pool filled with marine life, mostly crustaceans, but mollusks and barnacles, too. Many pools even contain little aquatic mammals. I think these might be pets. I saw plenty of people playing in pools, but when they submerge (as they often do), ten minutes or more may pass before they resurface. Either they surface into other catacombs, or they have a remarkable lung capacity. That’s my suspicion. Maybe they can breathe underwater. Lin and I were talking about getting into the water ourselves, but decided to wait until we were wearing our wetsuits. Getting your core body temperature up and keeping it up would be a primary concern here.
“This place is awesome,” I said, taking it all in from as I leaned my head out the doorway of the Monk, “but I hate the cold. It makes me feel like I’m made up of frozen, shrinking bits.”
“You’ll be fine, David,” Lin said. “Toughen up. Focus on something other than your aversion to the chill. Take a moment to consider the miracle of your surroundings. These caverns, for example, are a geological rarity. They are formed when volcanoes erupt underwater. The lava cools on top but continues to flow underneath. Eventually some of these flows collapse in on one another and the empty spaces create a cavern.”
“Collapsing lava caverns?” I asked. “Is it possible there is more running lava around us?”
“Yup,” said Chris, emerging from the bridge behind me. When we got back to the Monk, Chris was at the piloting console. He must have run straight here from “jail.” This was the first time he had condescended to our company. “And the more you talk, the more likely it is to burn a hole through the ceiling.” He smiled, eyes half-lidded. He creeps me out.
“Nice to see you too,” I said. “You didn’t think to wait around for the rest of us?”
“I figured you’d get your head out of your arse soon enough,” he replied.
Lin laughed and I decided to take the jab good-naturedly. “Hey,” I said, “have either of you wondered what we are breathing down here?”
“Oxygen,” Chris said, point-of-fact. I think he was still trying to make me feel stupid.
“But doesn’t it have to come from somewhere?” I asked.
“You’re right, David,” said Lin. “We’ll keep an eye out for plant life, or some kind of ingress and egress for oxygen and carbon-dioxide. Maybe that’s our way out.”
I chuckled. “Either that, or we’re already dead and heaven is a splash park.”
“This isn’t heaven, David,” Lin said, chiding. “But it’s not Atlantis either.”
I had already arrived at much the same conclusion. We were in the wrong part of the world for starters. “What else are you going to call an underwater civilization?” I asked.
Lin began to nod her head. “Plato’s Atlantis was a political fable about the dangers of unmitigated power.”
Chris stopped in his tracks. “Now on this island of Atlantis there existed a confederation of kings which held sway over all the island and parts of the continent. But one grievous day and night befell them, when the island of Atlantis was swallowed up by the sea and vanished.”
“Uh…Chris?” I looked sideways at my very strangely behaving counterpart. He looked back at me, intently, and continued. “It’s from Timaeus bookworm. I read too.”
Lin explained, “Chris is just reminding us that he is an ivy-league dropout. Plato’s Timaeus is the origin of the popular Atlantean legend.”
I chose to ignore his ivy-leagueness and turned my attention back to Lin. “They’re not our enemies,” I said. “That much is crystal clear.”
“Quite the opposite,” she agreed. “Their entire culture seems to be predicated on hospitality. They usher us from home-to-home and from their combs back and forth to the Sea Monk. They serve us meals, bring us gifts. They are gracious. Warm.”
“There must be at least a couple of thousand of them, possibly more,” I said, though I never felt stuck in a crowded metropolis. It’s more like an urban garden, an undersea Central Park. There are streams, ponds, pools, and lakes everywhere, and people slither in and out of the water constantly. There are no transports of any kind–no carriages or boats or other vehicles–but everyone slides into the water and swims from A to B. This is all one big aquatic system of moving walkways and escalators. As the people here are not obese, my guess is that this system contributes to their physical fitness.
This also explains their clothing, which is all skin tight, wetsuit style. Some clothing is more revealing than others. Modesty must be appraised differently when you’re wet all the time. The formality of their clothes also seems to vary. Some look almost like 1950’s style suits. They seem to wear only a few basic colors: green, black, dark brown, but of every conceivable variation, mostly trending towards the sleek and opaque. I can’t tell what the material is, but we were given clothes to wear later on.
The clothes are spongy, like neoprene, but more textured on the outside. Against my skin the material feels like the inner lining of a wetsuit, but when I rub my hand against the exterior it’s almost scale-like. Again, I find myself chuckling that their clothing makes sense. It’s cool, but far more significantly it’s designed for a purpose. Like a wetsuit you can comfortably get in and out of the water repeatedly without any hassle. But it keeps you warm, too, like a dry suit would. Only in Michigan winters or summers in Key West do you find American clothing like that.
There seem to be two or three distinct kinds of Atlanteans. One type carries itself a little more aggressively, moving a bit more lithely. They seem to be no bigger or stronger than the others, but they move like better athletes. I saw one wearing armor. She wore a helmet with two-inch thick spikes coming out in all directions, gladiator style, and something similar wrapped around her ribs. It stopped just shy of her breasts, but descended to cover the top of her bottom and the front of her pelvis. Something also covered the underside of each of her arms, but without any of the telltale spikes. No one treated her any differently, even when she emerged from one of the central, larger pools, carrying something that looked like a tire iron, a long spear, and some manner of kick board. No one gave her special notice as she glided through the caverns, receiving treats and conversations like the rest of us.
If I am not mistaken, another group of Atlanteans has gills. This seems to be unique even among the Atlanteans, as only this group has long slits behind their jaw line, back against the ear. I didn’t get a close look at these guys, but they did seem to receive a little extra attention, more space and gravity. We saw a few children who were introduced to us and greeted us warmly, I noticed that there weren’t many of them. Perhaps they are in school.
I’ve had an amusing thought. It struck me how much these diverse castes resembled the sects of first century Palestine. The hunters, for example, act much like the zealots in the gospels. The zealots, who were political revolutionaries, refused to bow to the Roman Empire and sought always to exert their independence from their military oppressors. Similarly, the Atlantean hunters must fight against the sea. They are assertive and forward. Whereas zealots wouldn’t bow to Rome, the hunters won’t bow to the apex predators of the deep.
I’m not sure yet if there are Herodians here (collaborators with the Empire), or Essenes (priests who shun society and make their living in the desert), or Sadducees (scholars who scoff at the supernatural), but the idea intrigues me. I may be stretching it a little, but I like this kind of stuff. It is an intellectual kind of Mad Lib – that game where you fill in the blanks to make a compelling story. That’s what I’m doing in Atlantis with scripture. Improv.
Several times I witnessed the gillies kneel at the edge of the pools and place their hands in the water. They rubbed them together and then splashed water on their faces, cooing. They always put something into the water as well – some portion of what had been hunted or cooked or prepared. A tithe.
As a people they are a wonderful contrast to the cavern, which feels like it’s getting smaller and colder every day. Every pebble that skitters across the ground makes me think the ceiling is finally caving in to bury us alive. Living here is like living in the space beneath a house, wondering if the supports will hold.
“Any thoughts on how we might get home?” I asked, coming out of my ruminations.
“We don’t know where we are,” said Chris. “We don’t have any outside communications. We could still be in 11,000 feet of water.”
“That bad, huh?”
“What about Daedelus?” Lin asked. “Any chance we could reach it?”
Chris snorted. There was something different about him. He had always been aggressive, of course, and caustic. But he was taking on more of an edge. “We’d spend longer looking for it than it would take to go to the surface.”
I agreed. “The surface has the benefit of never moving.”
Lin shook her head while Chris continued, “And the sub is busted. The hole in the roof is big. We can’t patch it.” He said that looking at me, as if to suggest it was my fault somehow.
“What about the dive motors?” I asked.
“Maybe,” Lin chimed in. “But the ascent would take too long. Even with two hydreliox tanks each, we’d run out of air before we made it to the surface. Then there’s the bends. When you surface too quickly, pockets of nitrogen begin to bubble inside your body. The effect is similar to shaking a pop bottle and then opening it. You’re the pop bottle. The change in pressure causes the nitrogen to expand inside your body. When you get to the surface the bottle opens and you get very sick.”
“Is that an understatement?” I asked.
Lin smiled. “We have to ascend slowly or we’ll die.”
“Three weeks,” she said.
“Could we seal off a section of the Monk?” I asked, chasing down another possibility. “Other than the bridge, and try to make it buoyant? Enough to make it topside?”
“That’s not a bad idea,” Lin said, “but it would require an acetylene torch and solder. We have neither.”
“We could use the balloon ballast,” Chris interjected, “the rubber lining on the inside of the ceramic tank. It has an emergency console. We could inflate it and breathe for a few hours. Tough to say how many. The big problem is still the bends.”
“Even so, once we broke out of the balloon, we would have to tread water,” Lin added. “We would have lifejackets, but who knows how long we’d be bobbing there? Every shark for a hundred miles would come eventually. We have no way of communicating our position. Since the Sea of Okhotsk is so rarely traveled, the chances of someone stumbling onto us are slim.”
“Any chance these guys could help? The Atlanteans?” I regretted that as soon as I said it, convinced that referring to these people as mythical humanoids could only invite derision. I was right.
Chris whipped his head around. “Are you trying to make friends with everyone?” I wondered briefly what was so wrong with that before he continued. “I have some ideas about what to do with them, and with their monster.”
I corrected him. “That wasn’t a monster. It was tannin.”
“Tannin?” Chris asked.
“It’s Hebrew,” I said. “In the biblical literature the tannin were the great creatures of the deep. They showed up in Genesis, Job, the Psalms…even Jonah. I used to think it was just colorful language, until one of them bit our sub in half and tossed us into a mythical underwater Comic Con.”
Lin intervened. “I don’t think these people have the means to help us. No one knows they are down here, wherever ‘here’ exactly is. Heading to the surface, for them, is about as likely as us colonizing the moon. We might as well be little green men.”
“So we’re stuck here?” I asked.
“Yes,” said Lin. “For a while, at least.”
And on that happy note, we three took a short break. Lin and I tried to convince Chris to come back with the Atlanteans and eat something, but he refused. At first I thought he simply wasn’t hungry, but the more I reflected on his behavior the more it seemed to me like he was already beginning to withdraw further into himself. Later I wondered whether or not he made the smart choice. The meal was exquisite, but afterwards upset my stomach.
We ate back in the dining area where we were first “imprisoned.” Lin and I were hosted by an Atlantean nuclear family. They were very polite, but very bashful also. Jailer wasn’t there, so it was like we were starting our inculturation all over. We were given seafood, of course, mostly like sashimi, but with strange spices like a peppermint curry. Every part of the tongue was involved in tasting it. My skin tingled a little, like the feel of static after a nap with a fuzzy blanket. I didn’t know food could do that, but this does.
When the meal concluded I came face to face with one of my greatest fears: the need to use an unfamiliar bathroom. I’m surprised this issue hadn’t come up previously, but we were all dehydrated. Plus I might be the only one of us who refused to go in the cave. I nodded to one of our hosts and made the universal gesture of urgent urination.
I’ve been in some tough bathroom situations before. Traveling through India was no picnic, but at least there I knew what to expect. Here, not only did I not speak the language, but I wasn’t even sure they had the same plumbing we do. I meant that in both possible ways.
Turns out they do.
My bathroom phobia mostly concerns the possibility of rats and cockroaches appearing at inopportune moments. What with all those nature shows about Japanese spidercrabs growing to be thirteen feet long, and undersea anthropods that swell to fifteen or twenty pounds worth of evil, my fear was almost crippling. Liz was always the pest-killer in our home.
This bathroom was surprisingly clean and neat, though it turns out my fear was justified. As soon as I crossed the threshold, I saw something large, thorny, and arachnid clack across the floor, crabbing sideways into the water. I never got a proper look at it, but the whole time I was in that room I kept checking the blind corners, looking for signs of a possible ambush.
The room was oval-shaped. There was no jelly door, but there was a ledge running around the outside like a bench. In between that ledge and the wall was a swiftly moving river. You could lean backwards over the bench, above the water, and do what you needed to do. There were naturally forming eddies here and there, and a place that served as some manner of waterfall in which two currents, moving in opposite directions, came together and disappeared into a hole. Beneath, another fast river carried away all waste. This river contained that strange, glowing algae, so an eerie light emanated from the toilet. Reflective shells on the wall created a three-hundred-and-sixty degree mirror effect. The bioluminescence was everywhere, making the whole experience seem like a cross between a day at the beach and a laser-light show.
There was a large red worm swirling in one of the eddies. I’m scared of spiders and insects, but—thankfully—red worms don’t trigger my sissy-gene. The worm was affixed to the sides of the river, standing on one end like a stalk, and glowing faintly. Curious, I reached out and slid the backside of my fingers against it. It shocked me a little. More significantly, the room was plunged into darkness. Something like a hood had come up from the bottom of the worm and covered it. Gingerly I reached my hand back into the water and felt around until I grasped the worm. I slid the hood back and was amazed that the lights went back on.
Apparently aware of all my nonsense with the lights, one of our hosts came into the room and snickered. He approached the edge of the river (where I was stranded, holding the light open) and eased my hand away from the worm. The room went back to black, but in the darkness he began to sing a little, with his face hovering right over the water. Slowly the lights came back up and my host took a place leaning against the wall.
Though I found no toilet paper, several corals sat on a ledge, each softball sized with a symbol above it. My host came and took one. He gestured to himself and then broke it in half. At first I thought it was something to eat. He stopped me and looked downwards.
Oh. Wrong end.
From his motions I gathered that the broken end was the one to use. To my surprise, once I did, the coral immediately began to grow. Slowly, but visibly.
It eats what we ate. How circle-of-life-y.
My Atlantean friend showed me how to rinse the coral off. He then placed it back on the shelf and wrote a character above it. He pointed to me, and to it, and I got the idea: Don’t use someone else’s bum coral.
I was just about to rejoin the rest of my companions when I felt something sharp prick my shoulder. Looking up, I saw an enormous spidercrab-–maybe two feet!-–picking at my clavicle. I jolted, my entire body rigid with fear, and leaped backwards. The Atlantean was still there, and once again I found myself in the unenviable position of being laughed at. He reached for the spidercrab and swiftly grabbed it around both sides. He began cooing to it, and then rasping at me. I think he was trying to teach me that it wasn’t dangerous. But when he forcibly pushed it into my hands, I threw the spidercrab straight to the floor and mashed it with both heels. That thing was strong, though, and I didn’t even break the shell. It just clattered across the floor sideways and disappeared into the encircling stream.
My host looked at me as though my parents must have been related, but all I could do was shrug. What can I say? I hate spiders.
Fear makes the meek murder.
Lin and I returned to the Monk, where I slept for a long time. I still felt sluggish and a bit dopey, but less so after my adrenaline rush from the bathroom spider.
I am starting to feel better.