I think I was being herded today, both by Lin and by the Atlanteans. That’s how it started out at any rate, with Lin leading a short parade of smallish greenish people straightway into the Sea Monk and standing there, watching, while I dressed and meekly followed them outside. We went to the garbage pool, then angled our way along the sloping wall I always thought of as being south.
Maybe a quarter-mile along, I saw that there were dozens of very shallow pools, puddles really, that reached incomprehensibly far back beneath low shelves of rock. If you weren’t looking for them, you never would have spotted them. The shelves were only eighteen inches or so above the ground, and the glow from those pools gave the effect of rope lights along theatre aisles.
The smaller Atlanteans lay down flat on their bellies and shimmied sideways beneath that ledge. I got down but couldn’t fit. Lin, however, was nearly as small as they were, so she followed. After a minute or two, which seemed eternal, they stopped crab-crawling and I could see they had regained their feet. Obviously the ceiling heightened further in. Curiosity kept me watching for some time. They were farming something. I didn’t get a great look, but Lin later explained to me that the pools are for harvesting the bioluminescent algae. From what she pieced together, it is used for both culinary and technological purposes. I had long begun to suspect that the algae spiced their food and that the shocks and tingles we received were related to the glow.
I became bored with watching, though I confess I was originally more fascinated than I would previously have guessed. I sat with my back against the wall for an hour or more before Lin poked me. She was reaching one hand out from under the rock shelf, sticking one bony finger in my side to make me move. I scooted out of the way so they could all come back out and noticed Lin had glow-water on her cheek and chin. I actually got her to laugh about that.
Lin was full of enthusiasm and began immediately to explain several science-y things that I did my best to understand. “It’s the algae farms!” she exclaimed. “That’s how the caverns stay oxygenated.”
“They’re actually farmers?” I asked. “I thought we just called them that because they weren’t hunters or gillies.”
“The algae work in tandem with the volcanoes.” Lin got a little dazzle in her eye whenever she started to explain this stuff. “The process involves a specialized kind of hydrothermal hydrogen-sulfide that manufactures chemosynthetic cyanobacteria. Possibly with fluorescence.”
“Everybody knows that,” I said, but she didn’t get the joke.
“Sorry. Let me put it more simply: the volcanoes make something when they get hot. The algae absorb it and then turn it into air.” I could see her mind reeling with the implications. “This is a repeatable process, David.”
“Meaning we could start undersea colonies of our own if we found the right conditions.”
I thought about that for a minute. “So if we want to create our own American Atlantis, all we need to do is find an active underwater volcano with a complicated system of obsidian tunnelworks and import previously nonexistent plants into the new ecosystem artificially?”
“Don’t be an imp.” Her tone was harsh, but she smiled. “This is a big deal.”
“Yeah,” I conceded. “It is.”
Our next little jaunt took us into several crevices of the volcano. I got the impression the core was much further removed, but there were places where molten lava leaked out, and the Atlanteans had devised a very clever engineering structure to manipulate it. It was the source of their metallurgy and the fires for their stoves. We watched them work for some time, but it was hard to fully comprehend what they were doing. If you can imagine it, their metalwork looked like baking and their cooking looked like canoeing. They made weapons with cookie-cutters and presses, laid out on tins and stuffed into these cooling caverns with front-facing apertures. But when they made that hot booze, they began by dredging the bottom of these mineral-basins with oversized spoons. This pulled the lava from front to back, deepening the container and thus exposing a black powder that, now heated, turned into a glutinous oil. They mixed it with the glowwater and a mineral concoction before placing it on a thin slate above a magma pool about the size of a serving platter.
Lin and I were invited to drink this as soon as it was ready.
I nudged her with my elbow. “You ready, sister?” I said, holding my steaming stone cup to my lips in anticipation. It was warm, but I had dipped my finger in to test it. We wouldn’t be burned.
“One. Two. Three,” she said, and we tossed back the hot drink.
I kept mine in my mouth for a moment, enjoying the experience. “Wow,” I said. “That was incredible!” I grabbed Lin’s head and kissed the top of her hair. We both laughed and the Atlantean farmers refilled our cups.
“Again!” I called and we downed another. Lin knocked me back, giggling, and I began to coo in imitation of the Atlanteans. We all danced, and our hosts cooed and laughed along with us.
Some time later, two gillies arrived and stood a few paces apart. At first I thought they had been drawn by our outbursts, but eventually they bowed to the farmers and shared a short conversation in their native tongue. The farmers nodded and put the cups away, and then all seven of us–the two gillies, Lin and myself, and the three farmers–moved away from the volcano and toward one of the tinier pools.
When I saw the pool I realized we must be going on some kind of expedition. I chuckled as I watched Lin’s “mate” smoothly wind his arm around her waist and pull her to him. She leaned back, not fighting him exactly, but definitely mistrustful and unwilling. “Don’t worry, Lin,” I said. “It’s not so hard. Just relax.”
“Not all of us are as willing to go face-to-face with strangers, David.” Lin was still on a bit of a high from the black drink, but I could tell the euphoria was fading quickly. She’d heard all about my prior adventures but was still reluctantly allowing them to lead her into the water.
“Just close your eyes and think of the prom,” I said.
“If you close your eyes I will kick you in the shins,” she threw the words back in a last effort at being cavalier. I laughed to encourage her, but noticed that she held her breath as long as possible in the pool, before finally allowing him to breathe into her. She looked like a cat in the tub, face wrinkled as a hag’s during Mass, squirming and resentful and then awkwardly trying not to kiss the man.
I approached my mate like a pro and grabbed her, placing my mouth on hers before we even got into the water. She backed away, spat, and looked at me like I was a pervert. I made to apologize, but she pointed me into the water and I had to swim by myself for a while.
This time, the familiars appeared inside the pool, seeming almost excited. Their movements were shorter and quicker, and they glowed white rather than their previous yellowy-green. I was bumped by something, which startled me until I realized it was one of the little walrus-foxes. Truthfully, they don’t look much like walruses. I needed to think of a new name. They are about the size of a small dog, with reddish fur and slick ears. They have a long tail that greatly expands when wet. About the only walrus-like trait they have is two large tusks that look disproportionately large, coming from the front of their faces and tucking under their lower jaw and neck. I gathered this little “seafox” would be joining us when he clipped in and out from between my knees and rubbed his tusks against my shin. I was surprised. They were velvety, and though I discovered later they had left a faint rash, those rolling-pin teeth were not sharp.
Our mates went through the jelly wall without us and – to my unending shame – Lin squiggled by unaided. I was allowed to struggle, but then got out by myself before help arrived. I cheered, air gushing out of my mouth in victory, but then had to hurry over to my mate in order to latch onto her face for fear of running out of stuff to breathe.
If the experience of oxygen-sharing with Iara was awkward at times, then this was murder. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like more of a fool than I did with this woman. She made me feel like a high-school boy taking his friend-that-happens-to-be-a-girl to the prom. I had all of the misadventure of romance without any hope of reward.
Without my watch I couldn’t rightly say how long we had been down there. I would guess it was six or seven minutes already, which meant we would be ten or twelve minimum on return. Some whales, I know, can hold their breath for almost two hours, but they have lungs the size of small churches. I didn’t think the three diminutive farmers had lungs like that. I began to get concerned. Our little friends couldn’t have been carrying that much air.
We stopped after a while, each of us drifting upright. Lin and I briefly untangled ourselves to enjoy the view provided by the ever-present familiars. The seafox was moving around, animated, and then dove off a ways, a weird sound emanating from someplace deep in the back of its throat. It was a siren, or a horn, or an alarm, and I grew scared. Lin re-attached with her mate, and I moved to do the same but was interrupted.
I have no idea how something so incredibly vast can sneak up like that. I panicked. All my air blew out of my mouth as I tried to wiggle away, but my mate held me to her and forced her mouth to mine. I thought for sure we were dead, but she kept very calm. She wasn’t frightened at all, at least not visibly. I was. I couldn’t see Lin, but I bet she was, too. After all, it’s not like we’d had peaceful and positive experiences in the water thus far. And Leviathan was responsible for Jo’s death. It may be tannin, but I was in no real hurry to get up close and personal.
The beast from out of the sea loomed ever closer. The water displaced from his coming pushed us up and away, but my mate waved us closer again every moment. Leviathan turned from us, lazily I realized, and followed the seafox, like this was a little game they were playing.
In motion, the seven remarkable heads twined around one another, unwinding periodically and reconfiguring at random. Lit up by the dozens of familiars accompanying our gillie-guides, it was an eerie spectacle. The giant’s sides moved in front of us, a scrolling landscape of flesh. Scars and pits marked his topography, and here and then little tufts of something like fur. Then a red worm or two, like those I had seen in the library pools. And then clusters of them, growing right on the creature. When I had seen these worms before, there were always only one or two of them. Here there were thousands in a harvest enflamed.
Our escorts began to pull at the red worms, sliding their index fingers underneath them and prying them off. They stuffed them into nets, moving quickly and expertly. When the worms were taken, their hoods came up and their color darkened. The rippling motion in the water around them, I assumed, was due to the small current they gave off when they were touched. They had an orange, almost flower-like center, and in the nets they looked like bouquets.
Leviathan moved on and the little ones bowed, waving. The creature was, I then thought, a tremendous thing. A lobstered and squid-like dragon, the fiery serpent of the sea, gliding through the current instead of the air with his seven heads like seven missiles aimed for war.
I thought he was long gone when, from beneath me, the seafox appeared again and floated in front of my face. I smiled, momentarily detached from my mate, but Leviathan rose from the depths and I was transported up, up on top of his great bulk. It was like being on a living elevator. I imagined myself being announced at the penthouse, brought up the secret way. His speed was remarkable. I had no idea where we were headed until he popped through the jelly wall and carried us all up the tunnel. His ascent slowed as we reached the center of the largest pool, but he still bellowed as he burst forth, and I was knocked off his back, splashing down into the water.
When Leviathan descended, I was almost pulled under, so great was the vortex created by his departure. But Lin grabbed me and pulled me onto the rocks.
I hardly remember the next few moments, I was so taken with my experiences. I remember the little ones cutting up the worms and removing the floral bits. I remember them placing some parts back into the pool. And I remember them placing some of that flower on my tongue and the bitter taste it gave.
That was right before Lin started screaming. Right before I felt something sharp dig into my sides. Right before I realized I had been stung by the spinefish.