Lin barged into the diveroom this morning, jerking off the blankets and yanking me awake. “You should take a look at who’s outside.”
I’m glad I did.
American frontier paintings from the 1800s often portray Navajo war parties. They are typically arrayed across the beer-colored plains, staring back at the observer like bikers in a bar. I felt like I was looking at the science fiction rhyme to those portraits. Eleven tricked-out, grim-faced, ready-for-war Atlanteans waited outside. They stood in a loose triangle formation, with one I’d never before seen at the front. Jailer was there, too, toward the back, but he gave no sign of recognition or welcome. The frontrunner stepped up brusquely and dropped about ten things at my feet—armor, finboard, helmet, etc. He was a big dude, at least seven feet tall, gigantic by their standards. He wasn’t lean like many of the others, either. He was thick, a destrier or a bull or a great cat. I immediately began to think of him as Goliath.
Goliath’s hand clapped on my shoulder and he bent his head down to mine. His eyes glowed and his fingers dug into my skin with electric nails. He wasn’t trying to hurt me, just to make sure I knew this was important. I ducked back into the Sea Monk where Lin and Chris were waiting. I was so startled to see Chris that I almost forgot what was happening outside.
“I’m going with you,” he said.
“You’re kidding,” I replied. “Lin?”
“No way, David,” she said, shaking her head. “Not after what happened to you the last time you went out there.”
“If you lived through that,” Chris said, “there might be a better chance of getting out of here. I want to see for myself.”
Lin looked at him like he was nuts. “You’ll die.”
Chris stalked off to the diveroom to get suited up. Lin narrowed her eyes a moment. “This is better,” she said, walking away. She wouldn’t fight to balance an equation before it righted itself naturally.
By the time I arrived back outside, Chris was growling at Goliath. “Come on, big man,” Chris said, standing only an inch from Goliath’s chest but looking up defiantly. “Let’s go fishing.” The big man refused to even look at the little one. Chris tried to put on some of the stuff Goliath had tossed in front of me, but was quickly disabused of the notion. Jailer came from nowhere and popped a pressure point, making Chris’ whole body limp. I wish he had done that to his mouth. “Keep your hands to yourself, Aquaman,” said Chris, his face contorting with either shame, or frustration, or both. Jailer kicked the weapons and armor away from Chris while my ugly opposite lay on the ground still struggling to regain his composure. The others snickered, and two of them–the only women–looked away bored. Poor Chris. Women of every species try to pretend he’s a figment of their imagination.
Chris managed to finally regain his feet and resumed pacing as I prepared. His facial tattoos were almost as animated as his facial features. “You better back me up on this, preacher,” Chris said. “I don’t wanna stay here.” That was obvious, though I still wasn’t sure if Chris was motivated by adventure, scientific curiosity, or by a desire to figure out some way of getting home. All I knew was that he wasn’t making any friends by bullying the war party.
I ignored him as best as I could.
Goliath once more placed a hand on my head and, gripping it like you’d palm a basketball, raised my eyes to his. Sharply he held up two fingers and pointed to my hydreliox tank. Right. I guess they’re less prone to seeing me repeat my mistakes than I am to making them.
I came back with a second tank and a pony, just in case. The pony would only give me an additional three minutes of air at this depth, but it was better than nothing. Goliath placed a set of guards on my shoulders that had thumb-thick, four-inch spikes pointing out in front and slightly to the sides. On my upper arms he fitted a second piece that locked in place with the first, but this one armored the bottom of my arms and was smooth. I realized why once I strapped on the girdle, also spiked, as the arm-plates protected me from accidentally scratching myself. As I was getting suited up, Chris shuffled around, playing with the spear gun he’d brought back from the dive locker. He was making me nervous, and I saw several of the others look at him like they thought he was contagious.
Over top of the girdle I strapped on my twin tanks, slipping the regulator and gauge set underneath the shoulder-plates, still leaving myself room to turn my head. Goliath passed me a helmet, round on top with flat, straight cheeks. I put this on over my mask, though everyone else had tied theirs to their backs like a hood on a sweatshirt.
I felt like a prawn.
Finally, I was given a large spear. It had a spike at the bottom end for stabbing, a long needle with a barb on the top for skewering, and a middle-finger-length knuckle-razor for punching. Goliath shoved something else into my hands that looked like a tire iron. It was cross-shaped, two feet in diameter, with another knuckle-razor for punching. I held this in my left hand, while he stuffed a kind of wake board into my right. The board was half as long as my body, with slits in which to place my feet perpendicular to my torso. Two long, curved spikes rose from the top and the bottom. The one on the bottom had been dulled close to the board and notched so I could carry it like a briefcase without getting cut. The tire iron fit snugly between the board and my body. Smartly done. At first I thought the weapons were made of bone, perhaps reinforced with steel, but then I thought the other way around. These people are skilled with minerals, and they have blacksmiths and metalworkers all around the volcano, but I have no idea if their craft is beyond or behind our own technological curve on the surface. I know this: I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong end of these weapons. The thought suddenly occurred to me that this Goliath might be about to challenge this David to a biblical rematch. After all, what did I really know about these people and their customs, their sense of honor or justice? Nothing. And that began to scare me.
Goliath, satisfied that I was presentable, hoisted me by the tanks and dropped me in front of the triangle of warriors. I felt like a disobedient puppy, being put back in the safe spot. Chris, sensing the moment was here, began to stretch his neck and loosen up his shoulders.
But nobody moved.
Impatient, Chris tapped Goliath on the arm. “Let’s go, man!” But the giant could have been stone. Chris took off toward the water and looked over his shoulder, expecting me to trot after him, but there was no way I was stepping anywhere Goliath didn’t want me to. I shrugged. “Sorry, Chris. This is their show.”
Chris came back and invented an entirely new dialect of profanity, treating me to the most opulent expressions of vulgarity known either above or below the sea, but I followed Goliath’s lead and just stood there looking ahead. When Chris turned his attention back to the giant, I relaxed and tried to catch Jailer’s eye. I swear my expression must have said, “I’m sorry. This guy’s a wiener. I hate him too.” Jailer smirked.
This went on for about five minutes until, finally, Chris threw down his tank. He waved his middle finger in the air before mercifully re-entering the Monk and slamming shut the hatch behind him.
Goliath began moving at once.
He was very fast and I struggled to keep up, but Jailer put a hand on my back and helped me stay at pace. We only went a short distance, to a backyard-sized pool of little brilliance surrounded by stone seats and platoons of little children. This is where they trained for whatever it was we were about to do. I noticed none of the gillies here and wondered how long we would stay under, or whether or not the other Atlanteans had gills somewhere else, or something other than gills to help them stay under for a long time. But before I could put two-and-two together, Goliath’s gravelly coo boomed out across the pool and all the little ones stood up straighter. I did too. He spoke in terse, abrupt phrases for only a few seconds and then lifted me up by the hydreliox tanks like a prize. Again. The children laughed and Goliath even smiled before putting me down nicely. Then he dove into the pool and we all fell in behind.
I placed the regulator in my mouth, and Jailer helped me with the board. Once it was on, my legs were locked in-step and I could swim only by kicking like a dolphin. Jailer stayed behind me, giving me room to get the hang of it, but the rest of the war party had motored ahead quite a ways. At times I nicked my board against the top or the bottom of the tunnel, which really messed up my swim. Still, we were at another viscous wall in less than a minute (I was keeping better track of the time, this go around), and the added propulsion with the fin allowed me to make it almost straight through the wall in one go. I didn’t panic, but I still required help, and Goliath was quick to reach his great mitt into the goo and yank me out by the haft of my spear.
Clusters of familiars began bobbing around, once again lighting the way. They stayed with us the entire time, showing a preference for female proximity over male.
I noticed that the Atlanteans were all holding their breath. Little bubbles escaped every so often from their noses, which explained why they were off so quick once I got through. Someone else played babysitter this time, a slender fellow with shorter hair than all the rest–more Bon Jovi circa 2000 than 1980–and Jailer went on ahead. With more room, I found it easier to swim and caught up to the others as they stopped for a moment at the entrance to a cave mouth.
Three minutes underwater.
Goliath bolted into the cave, spear-first, and was back out again in an instant. He swam directly to me and grabbed my hand, holding it in between our faces. Then he took the jagged nail on his left forefinger and cut open my right palm. It only hurt a little, but I was surprised. I tried to pull my hand away, but he wouldn’t release me. He didn’t even have to struggle.
The rest of the party had formed a containing pattern around the opening. Goliath led me into the middle. Out of the cave mouth several saurian sharks erupted, lashing and biting and whipping about. They were so fast I couldn’t tell how many there were. A half-dozen, maybe? And they were all gunning for me. I realized then why Goliath had cut me. It was probably the only reason I was brought along in the first place. Live bait. I would have been furious if not for the fact that Goliath had already turned and slammed his iron into the first of them as it charged, bloodying its nose and stopping it cold. He kept himself between me and the sharks, punching another with the knuckle-razor on his spear and jabbing a third with the spike on the bottom as it swam behind him. He was every bit as fast as they, but better armed.
Jailer and another had cornered a saurian of their own and were jabbing and poking it. It was a slow killing, but that thing was not long for this world. One of the women grabbed another saurian by the dorsal fin. She had lost both her iron and her spear and was biting it. I made to help, but as I got close, the thing saw me and lurched forward. The woman was flung off its back and hit her head on the cave mouth. Another saurian emerged and latched onto her calf. I didn’t see what happened next. I brought the iron up like Goliath and tried to keep it between myself and the saurian. I was almost too slow. I saw its jaws open up and unhinge. As they did, the long bottom lip uncurled from beneath its mouth and lashed out toward me like a toothy whip. I jammed the iron into its mouth and leaned my face away. The shark slammed shut its jaws on my weapon and immediately wedged itself on the spikes. The beast couldn’t close its jaws, and the barbed ends of each spike in the iron prevented it from dislodging my weapon. I tried to bring my spear around to stab it, but I was so awkward in the water I lost my pitch. My legs drifted up underneath it and I jabbed with both legs as hard as I could to drive the bottom spike of the finboard into its belly. I did this a hundred times. Or maybe it was a dozen. But it felt primal and ceaseless and awesome. The thing stopped moving, and I rolled us both over so I was astride it. Goliath pushed me off. I was clowning around like a cowboy. In one second he had wrapped it up in a net and darted away. This time no one stayed to babysit, and I got the impression that I would be left behind if I didn’t get my head on straight.
I looked at my gauges: 4:45 underwater.
I kicked hard and began to follow, but the adrenaline left my body just then. I could see the others up ahead; two or three had already made it to the wall and pushed on, a total of four saurians in nets that I could see. The injured one was the first one through, and any concerns about being lost were alleviated. Her wound left a trail of blood that showed up in the water, black paint on a black canvas. It wasn’t a different color, but it was still impossible to miss.
I felt relieved when I got to the wall. Everyone was through but Jailer and Goliath.
6:25 minutes underwater.
I slowed a bit, thinking that since they obviously had extended lung capacity, this wasn’t going to kill them, but as I did, I saw Jailer’s face fall and Goliath’s shoulders tense. Spinning onto my back, I looked down the plane of my body to see a fish that looked like an elephant. It had to have been ten thousand pounds of serrated tusk and trunk coming out from a mottled grey blob with big ears. It was a Babar-shaped float at the Macy’s Day parade. Its distinguishing features were a large snout and carnassials, and the fifty thousand angry teeth they concealed. I’ve always thought of elephants as cute. Now I know their cuteness is due to an unequal exchange in which their underwater counterparts were given an extra measure of mean.
The elephantfish opened a mouth like a garage door and bit down on the bottom half of my body. The spikes in my fin board achieved much the same thing as the tire iron, lodging themselves in its open mouth. I was able to slip my feet free of the board; but the elephantfish shook violently and somehow wrenched the board free. Goliath was there like a bullet, lancing his spear into the creature’s eye all the way up to his forearm. And then, with solid purchase, he slammed his knuckle razor into its gills again and again.
Jailer grabbed me and started to pull me back toward the wall when I got more bad news. From beneath, another saurian had shot up and tried to clamp down on my ribs. It was right out of the Jaws movie poster, but in this case Jaws also had a fangy lasso that he wrapped around my waist. Another saurian came for Jailer, but he swiftly unbuckled his rib-cage plating and slipped behind the fish, gutting and killing it. I was tossed around till I thought I’d break my neck, my spear and iron lost when the elephantfish tried to snack on me. Without my fin, I was pretty much defenseless. But Goliath hit the saurian broadside, coming out of nowhere, and his momentum took him, the fish, and me right through the wall of goo. He must have broken its back, because the thing just twitched in little jerks while he pried open its mouth and detached it from my side. Jailer had gone ahead and surfaced.
Goliath didn’t even look tired when he handed me the saurian and motioned for me to drag it up to the surface. He swam in front of me, but moderately, and we emerged to all the little children excitedly running around and play-acting the details of the fight.
I had a hard time dragging that shark-thing onto the rocks, but no one offered to help. Truth be told, I wanted to do it alone anyway. The kids were running up to me too, which wasn’t an experience I was used to. I felt amazing.
David Mann, demon-slayer.
I’ve always been considered weak, unathletic, and awkward. But here I feel strong. I’m no Goliath, but David didn’t make out too badly. Maybe I was meant to live here. Maybe the ache I’ve felt this past year didn’t have anything to do with Liz. Maybe it’s always been about me, about not fitting in, about feeling like I’m out of touch with the reality for which I was created.
Maybe I should stay here.
I didn’t see anyone make an offering when they got out of the pool, but I’m not sure why this stuck out in my mind. Perhaps Iara’s insistence on these ritual forms was becoming more familiar to me than I had previously let on.
Goliath stood up and pointed out the woman who had been bitten, and everyone chided her. It was funny. She looked embarrassed, but not humiliated. Her leg wasn’t bandaged and had stopped bleeding. It looked like some of the goo from the jelly wall had been smeared over the wound. My guess is that it has some usefulness as a cure-all for cuts and open sores. The kids made little kissy-kissy noises at her. Jailer cooed softly in her ear in a sing-song, the universal language of child-like mockery. She pinched his bottom and he howled, and then he put his arm around her shoulders and she leaned up and playfully bit his ear.
Goliath gesticulated the story of my victory against the saurian that bit Jailer’s girlfriend. He stamped over to where I was sitting and grabbed the fish I’d hauled up the tunnel by its tail, flinging it out of the way. Two of the Atlantean teachers dragged the fish I’d actually killed up next to me and Jailer acted out the battle, depicting me as a pathetic neophyte.
Next came the part where I got eaten. Goliath told them how he killed the elephantfish. This brought major cheers. I noticed that most of the war party had scampered off. Only Jailer, his wounded girlfriend, Goliath, and I remained. The big Atlantean turned to me. Grabbing my right hand, he turned it over and grunted. Then he took that same precipitous fingernail and scratched his own right hand until it bled like mine, before clamping our bloody hands together. His grip had only slightly more pressure than the saurian around my ribs when it bit me. I still can’t believe I escaped unhurt. Jailer smeared some of the goo over our gripped palms and forearms. When Goliath released me, he used his thumbs to shove the goo into our respective wounds. It gave a little shock but otherwise felt good.
Later I learned that the remaining members of our hunting party had gone to retrieve the elephantfish. It was a fearsome trophy and an incredible source of food for the whole city. Because of its enormity, they had to bring it up through the big pool, and people came to slice pieces off it all night long.
I’ll come back to that later, but for now I want to talk about that strong liquor they drink. It looked like murky Turkish coffee and it was served scalding hot. But they drink it like a shooter, and when it hit my belly, it was like grabbing an electric fence.
I had two.
Goliath drank his out of his helmet like soup.