I woke up this morning to the sound of Chris and Lin screaming their heads off at each other. Tensions had been escalating between them. Lin was trying to reassert herself as Mission Commander, and Chris was slowly exerting his independence. She didn’t care for his indifference toward the chain of command. He didn’t care for her. I didn’t feel like getting in the middle, so I sneaked outside to check on Nessa. She was still in that little pool. Her wounds had been cleaned and she looked superbly beautiful. Such stillness is ideally suited for appreciation, though it’s sad to see a car with no driver.
Whenever I got near her, the Atlanteans would place their hands over her body and shake their heads. There were four them, each with one hand on one of her limbs and the other hand in the pool. When I reached forward to place my hands on Nessa’s face, thinking to pray for her, one of them silently stroked my forearm and I stopped. Their touch is exciting, with a quality much like their food: tingly not shocking or painful. It’s like toothpaste on your chin. Their touch makes me feel alive. I wonder if their touch gives Nessa anything.
Iara was waiting for me when I returned to the Sea Monk, and by reading her face I could tell she wondered whether Chris and Lin would be joining us. I felt a little badly, but shrugged it off and decided to have this adventure on my own. Once I understood Iara’s gestures, I realized I was about to have the single greatest experience of my life. For all the adventure and heartache of the last few weeks, nothing would compare to this.
We were going into the water.
Iara was my guide for this undersea incarnation, my paraclete. It was “bring-your-surface-dwelling-companion-to-work” day. At least, those are the best words I have to describe our first venture out of the cavern and into the black water of the ocean’s basement.
Since Chris and Lin were still locked in their cage match for sanity and power, I was able to nip into the diveroom and grab my diving gear, a hydreliox tank and mask. I was wearing Atlantean clothing, which seemed well-suited for the unique aquatic surroundings, and I had everything I needed for open-water exploration. I got suited up and signaled to Iara that I was ready to proceed.
Our tanks were specially designed for deep water dives. Even stainless steel tanks would be crushed at this depth. The depletion of oxygen inside a normal tank would create hollow space which the exterior pressure could smoosh (that’s the scientific term). In order to compensate, our tanks were fitted with an automatic valve on the underside of the tank that opened as the oxygen was depleted, and a false flooring of plastic inside the tank that worked as an ever-shrinking diaphragm. Water flowed into the tank, precipitating a chemical reaction with the lining, and the balloon kept the oxygen from leaking out into the sea.
I guessed I had about 45 minutes worth of air.
I was wrong.
Iara began our journey by taking my hand in hers. We walked, fingers coupled in a foreign way—index and middle finger together, ring and pinky together, separate from the first two–and her thumb strummed down along mine massaging the knuckle every third or fourth stroke. I liked that a lot. It made me a little light-headed, and all the glow-water got a little brighter. I think Iara noticed, because she placed her hand over her mouth, her eyes dancing.
I don’t think she was flirting on purpose.
We had gathered a little crowd somehow, though I didn’t notice until we reached the edge of the largest pool. It resembled a lake, sloping down for about first ten or fifteen feet before dropping off. I checked the regulator, and fell backwards into the pool. I worried for a moment, as Iara made no immediate move to join me. She just keep getting smaller as I faded into the water. I wondered if maybe I had goofed. But then she slipped in, like a scalpel in a basin.
Quickly she assumed the lead, and I worked hard to follow. We were swimming down through a tunnel roughly the size of a city bus, still illuminated by the bioluminescent algae, and occupied also by some of the other creatures I’d seen in Atlantis, particularly those red worms growing along the walls.
I checked my air levels, noticing I only had 2800PSI remaining. I tried to signal to Iara to let her know, but she only smiled when I pointed to the numbers. Gills swelling and easing, she was stretching her muscles, and I caught myself staring. Hair like coal fire, eyes wide and glowing, cousin to this brilliant environment, she possessed an otherworldly beauty.
We persisted through the tunnel a while longer. Blocking the end was a great jelly, like that which had previously imprisoned us in the comb. This force field of organic plasma, a goo wall, stretched about eight feet in diameter. Iara went directly into it, swimming intently and forcing her head to bullnose through. The wall closed behind her, but I could see that she was still in the middle. Wondering how thick that jelly was, I plunged my arm into it.
I had once spent a summer on a farm, playing doula to a milk cow. Putting my arm into the goo created a familiar sensation, accompanied by a familiar revulsion. Looking up, I saw Iara swimming in great circles around the outside. She was just a few feet away, and free.
So in I went, mostly certain I wouldn’t regret it.
I did regret it, as it turns out. I had none of Iara’s natural grace or acclimatization. I flailed like a kid in the deep end. My mask came off my face, but fortunately I kept my regulator in my mouth. All that sticky mess got up my nose, in my ears, and in my eyes, and I was blind. I didn’t know where I was going and began to panic. Iara grabbed my arm and began to lug me in one direction. With her help, I kicked and swatted along the same trajectory until I finally emerged like something from carelessly made Jello.
Coming out into that water was not pleasant. The pressure at that depth felt like an adult bull doing a handstand on my toenail, and the second I broke through, I hit a wall of solid bull, metaphorically speaking. If my momentum had been arrested in the jelly, outside of it I felt like I was moving backwards. It took a moment for me to recover and for the nanobots to adjust to the dramatic change in atmosphere, but I realized then that I should have died if not for the miracle of Sebastian’s stolen tech. That thought made me wonder about Iara’s ability to move in and out of those high pressure differentials. Maybe it comes from the Atlantean food or the slow acclimatization of their remarkable physique. I was rewarded for my new birth with a migraine and two weak jets of blood, one from my left nostril and one from my left ear. Iara looked concerned, but I waved the mist of red ink away with my useless mask and nodded for her to continue. I put the mask back on and cleared it, tilting my head backwards and blowing the water out through my nose.
The sea was completely black. We swam awhile in the dark. As we left the jelly wall, the bioluminescence receded and the dark wrapped us totally. I felt like a spaceman, accompanying my alien queen on a grand adventure. And then a constellation of little sea-blooms appeared around us. Looking like plus signs, impossibly thin, they had a kind of hairdo on top and a blub on the bottom. It was like looking at a bead of moisture on the end of a pin. They bobbed around us, a set of familiars for our underwater odyssey. Moving in and out of our orbit, the familiars provided light along the sea floor before, behind and above us. The light only reached out ten to fifteen feet in any direction, but they were clearly perceptive, remaining with us the entire time.
The ground disappeared at some point, but I didn’t notice this at first. We were now floating over a gash in the tear duct of the world, and it sprawled away from us. Vast. An expanse of desert sea.
I caught sight of a cloud-like formation off to one side. Momentarily forgetting just how out of my element I truly was, I swam over to investigate. That’s not usually a good idea in black water, and I should have known better than to wander. It wasn’t a cloud exactly, but a cluster of softball-sized spinefish. They barely moved in the water. They floated, neutrally buoyant, only twitching from time to time, to the right or left. I eased myself closer to get a better look, but Iara had swum up behind me and grabbed one of my flippers. I looked over my shoulder and motioned for her to let go. She shook her head. Even under the water I could see the worried look in her eyes, so I relented and swam back a little. Then I noticed that the familiars, too, had kept their distance.
Looking more closely at the spinefish, I could easily see why I should have been more careful. Thick, black tines reached out from their bodies about six or eight inches, like an underwater porcupine, and though they didn’t seem particularly aggressive, I could imagine that being pricked by one of those would be fantastically unpleasant.
We resumed our deep sea exploration with some urgency. The familiars seemed to be pulling us forward, and Iara was all too happy to keep pace. I kept on the lookout for La Dignite, convinced Iara was taking me to Liz’s submarine. Before long, I was proven right. The wreckage sat on the bottom of the sea like a cracked nut. It had been torn in half. Barnacles and sea stars were growing inside, and a school of fish swam about. Most of the equipment was gone, scattered, I imagined, all along the seabed. No one could have survived a crash like this. Whereas our chances of surviving the breach in Sea Monk’s hull were extraordinarily slim, La Dignite had not been breached at all, but broken in two. The change in pressure would have ripped everyone in half just like the sub.
Taking it in, I rubber necked and craned so I could gather the scope of what I was seeing. I realized then that Liz was truly dead. I had to accept that now, for real. The truth closed up a hole of speculation and unknowing inside of me. I suppose I was prepared for such bad news, but it still hurt. I was short on breath. I was seeing spots. I wanted to cry but could not. My mask was too tight and I wanted to get out of there. It felt better to know, but not much. I hadn’t counted on that.
Gooseflesh was forming on my skin. The Atlantean suit was protecting me, mostly, but I still had nothing on my head, and my ears were starting to prick from the cold. I began to scan for Iara, but didn’t immediately see her because what she was doing was so utterly unfamiliar. She was floating in some kind of massive, hollow urchin. Tines ran latitudinally, while briers at least the length of my forearm closed the gaps between them. It was a living lockup. Only at its equator could you squeeze through, and just then only if you gingerly pressed apart the leylines of this crustacean cage. It floated with the sea, wafting like a mythological floating temple.
Everything down here is either meat or mineral. At this depth, there really isn’t any plant life apart from those few things that grow right on top of the hydrothermal vents. This urchin-temple was certainly organic, possibly even sentient. Inside, Iara had comfortably adopted that trans-religious posture of meditation. She was St. Patrick and the Bodhavista all at once, lit in front by the familial apparitions and silhouetted in her sacred shrine.
I gasped to see such a thing, but my regulator didn’t supply any air.
My oxygen had run out.
I burst toward Iara, burbling with the consequent inflow of water as I tried to get her attention. I cycled through all of the standard hand signals before I realized she would have no idea what they meant. I hadn’t brought a pony, an emergency tank, and that’s when complete panic set it. Grabbing the long lines of the urchin-temple cut my hands deeply, but I didn’t care. All I could think of was getting to Iara and to whatever help she might offer.
She turned as I bumped into her and her eyes widened in alarm. She didn’t notice my breathing but clamped down immediately on my bloody hands. The urchin was hazed with crimson and I was desperate for her to grasp that I was about to drown. We fought, and then I coughed and everything inside started to burn.
Iara released my hands to grab my face. She ripped the regulator away and put her mouth onto mine, sucking. She pulled the water out of my lungs with a vacuum from hers. I saw her gills flare and water blast out of them for two full seconds. She looked supersonic. Her gills settled a bit, and then I caught my breath. From hers. She was breathing for us both, and though I knew I was still in trouble, I realized that she had just saved my life.
However, the blood which had kept spilling out into the water brought consequences. I’d call them sharks if not for their serpentine appearance. They had ridges along their spine, corralling their dorsal fins, and a strange feature on their bottom lip, as though the lower jaw were curled up on itself. Big as trees and saurian-shaped, they writhed through the dark and slammed into the urchin-temple. When the first one hit, Iara pulled back from me and seized two of the urchin lines. Her eyes glowed more fiercely now, and she hugged my body to hers, my legs wrapped around her waist. As the saurian came again, Iara dragged down one side of the urchin, cutting and repelling the shark-thing with the temple’s barbs. Two others appeared but went straight for their wounded mate, attacking it instead of us. We watched for a moment before Iara pulled me back up and breathed into me once more.
With her right hand still fixed to the urchin, we stayed face to face for a long time, waiting for the saurians to leave. They did, as soon as they were done eating. Then the familiars came back and hovered around us. The sea was outer space again. Still. Dark. Just us. A cosmic court with no subjects. We played at sovereignty.
It’s a strange thing to be locked to another person by the mouth. I found it entirely awkward. There were moments I felt like kissing her, but then I felt guilty. She was always looking at me. We settled into a floating truce.
Much later, two others gillies emerged from the dark. They, too, were surrounded by the little familiars, like ghosts, and if they were surprised by our predicament, I could not tell. Swimming up, they placed their hands upon the urchin lines and began to tow us back to the tunnel. We abandoned the urchin very near that viscous wall, and then Iara passed me to one of the others so, presumably, she might rest.
When we broke through the surface of the pool back in Atlantis, Lin stood at the edge of the water. “David…” Her mouth was open and her eyes were darting from side to side and shaking. “What happened?”
“Hey Lin,” I collapsed onto the edge of the tunnel lip. “You are not going to believe what I have to tell you.”
“It can wait,” Lin said, hugging me as I struggled to my feet. “I’m just glad you’re safe.”
“Was there ever any doubt?” I asked, though in truth I had doubted it very much.
“Hanging around with you is almost enough to make me believe Someone’s out there watching over us,” she said.
“You becoming a believer, Lin?”
“Don’t push it too hard, David. Just be satisfied you’re alive.” Lin patted me three times on the back of the head, then shuffled away and did not look back.
The Atlanteans gave me a scolding. It seemed every one of them had to have their turn shaking a finger and getting in my face. I kept my eyes on Iara. She was fending off our two escorts, kneeling beside the pool and once again making her offerings. When she was finished, she was escorted away by the two gillies who had brought us back to the cavern.
I feel so relieved. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it back alive. And I was surprised by how deeply I cared for Iara, just as I was taken off-guard by how much I wanted her to be okay. I thanked God we both returned safely. I can’t remember being this glad to be back in the States, and I’ve never felt so much assurance that I needed to be anywhere as I do now about Atlantis. Maybe this is my destiny? Maybe this is the next chapter in my life? Maybe I should immigrate?
Maybe I already have.