“Don’t do it, David,” said Lin. We were standing outside the Sea Monk, just the two of us, struggling to come to terms with the miraculous events of the past twelve hours.
“I think we owe it to him, Lin,” I replied, placing my hand on her shoulder.
My Asian-American friend covered her diminutive mouth with her delicate hands. “I don’t think it’s a good idea.”
I leaned my head against the scarred hull of the submarine, suddenly tired. “Why not?”
“You can never tell with Chris,” she said, looking exasperated. “You could fill him in on all the details and he might flip out.”
I felt like we had had this conversation several times already. “You don’t know that.”
“I know that he’s been locked in the bridge for days,” she said. “I know that he scares me.”
“We need to tell him about the ambassador.”
“Why? He knows we’re immune to the spinefish. He knows they know. What does it matter that the ambassador is here to verify it?”
“Atlantis is bigger than just this colony.” I said. “We’re in the backwater, literally. This is the Atlantean equivalent of Mayberry. We need to find out what else is out there. We need to know what resources they have, what technology. We have to know who’s in charge and what they’ve got to work with. And I’ve just been invited to meet the Queen of England.”
“Atlantis,” Lin corrected.
“Whatever. The point is that Chris should be included in the decision-making process.”
“What process? You’re going, and the guy told you I can’t come along until later.” Lin threw up her hands and took a few steps back.
“That’s only because the subrail is built for two people, not three. He said they’d send someone back for you.” I said, though I was still thinking about Chris. Truthfully I’m not sure why I insisted on telling Chris about the ambassador. I certainly didn’t like him. And he hated me. But since we learned that surfacers are immune to the spinefish toxin, I have felt a new level of camaraderie with both him and Lin. We’re all in this together.
“There’s something else,” Lin began, hesitating. “About Chris.”
“I get it. I’m not crazy about him either.”
“He’s got a brain tumor,” she said, matter-of-fact.
As Mission Commander, Lin would have access to all our medical records. That she was sharing this private information with me spoke to the urgency of our situation.
“It was in his file. I didn’t think anything of it initially, except that it was remarkable that he would be able to participate at all; but now, with his increasingly erratic behavior, I think the tumor might be crowding his brain.”
“What is it with our team and cancer?” I asked. “First Sebastian and now Chris…”
“One in three Americans get cancer, David. This isn’t unusual.” I thought it was, especially given the dramatic effects of Sebastian’s colon cancer, but Lin kept motoring down the same conversational track. “The real issue is whether or not a pituitary tumor will intensify his aggressive behavior.”
“Does that normally happen?”
“Yes,” she said. “Increased inter-cranial pressure causes ‘mass effect.’ Basically the tumor starts squashing the brain against the sides of the head.”
“It makes people cranky.”
“Irritability is only one small part of the problem. Hallucinations, delusions, split personality disorder…these are all common symptoms associated with mass effect. Chris is a real problem, David. I need you to see that. Let’s leave him alone.”
“All right,” I said, conceding. “We don’t tell him about the ambassador. I’m not sure how that really helps, but I’ll go along with it. For now.”
Lin looked relieved. “It keeps him isolated and under control. I’ll take care of him. Our main concern presently should be getting you ready for your trip to the capital.”
Lin and I made our way to the furthest depths of the cavern. Along the way, Iara called to us and fell in alongside. I felt very close to her. As one of the colony priestesses, she performed a special role in almost every public affair. I had been hoping she might escort me to the capital, but that possibility looked more and more remote. I would miss her.
When we neared the back of the cavern, the Atlantean ambassador stepped up to greet us. “Hello,” he said, bowing in that distinctive Atlantean way. His low-voice strangely accentuated each vowel. After I was stung by the spinefish, word of my immunity had gotten to the capital somehow, and Mr. Officious had come immediately. “We must be fast.” He was dressed all in dark green, nearly black robes that gave him an air of office and import.
“Why?” Lin asked, though the Ambassador didn’t seem to understand what she was asking. He simply moved quickly ahead of us, impatiently beckoning for us to follow.
We entered into a room that looked like a cross between a railway station and an Olympic swimming pool. This “railpool” was simply designed, tucked in the deepest part of Atlantis, against the volcano. A short tunnel led back into the mountain to a pool about the size of a gas station. Against the back wall, two massive anchor-points secured two great cables, each about as big around as one of my ankles, which went straight into the water. Something like an underwater cable car was attached to them with large eyelets.
The “subrail” was shaped like a lengthy bullet. Husks of the urchin-temples provided the basic shape, with smaller ones at the front and larger ones toward the back, spaced about two feet apart. I gathered the urchin-temples were used because the gaps between their spikes would allow the water to pass through the hull, decreasing drag in the water. The spikes from each urchin-temple overlapped one another, but once inside the car, you could still see outside. This “nose” measured about fifteen feet, but the diameter of the husks reached their climax about six feet from the front and were twice the height of a man. The car itself was just longer than a limousine, but everything behind the husks was simple machinery.
Looking at the whole contraption from a distance, it could have passed for a torpedo.
The ambassador and I lay flat on our bellies in the front of the car. We secured our wrists to straps on a perpendicular bar, designed to keep us from falling out the back. I secured myself tightly. I was wearing two hydreliox tanks, giving me about ninety-minutes of air at this depth. I hoped that would be enough, but since my companion didn’t have gills, I guessed we would have to be out of the water in less than a quarter-hour anyway. Both our feet slipped into a giant kickboard, and I was made to understand that we would have to aid our journey along.
Behind us, three propellers spun like the tail rotor on a helicopter, which is to say forward and backward, vertically rather than horizontally. Each of the blades was curved slightly and at their broadest point was about the width of my chest and the thickness of my thumb.
“Lin,” I called out. “You got any idea how this thing works?”
“I think you’d better hold on, David,” she warned. And before I could further wonder how the propellers would be moved, I saw someone working a control panel. They turned one thing and opened another. I was feeling a little apprehensive and risked a glance at Iara. She had become something of a muse to me, and I hoped she could offer some comfort or guidance. She did something even better.
She spoke her first English word.
“Goodbye,” she said, and just as I was about to respond, a pressurized jet of steam shot out of the volcano. The ambassador and I rocketed through the shortest tunnel on board the subrail, still feeling that initial thrust as we broke through the jelly wall, and then continued along our tracks into the black water.
I have no idea how fast we were going. The blackness of the water was nearly absolute. There were a few lines of jelly held carefully in place within the tines of the churchins, working almost like rope lights, but their glow was very faint. I had to squint to see anything. I was terrified. If I had not been tied into place, I almost certainly would have been left behind. It felt like we were doing warp speed. Fish were reduced to pixels. I could hardly turn my head to the front, so all the landscape I happened to see went by, stretched into planes of colorless grey and gradients of black strata. The subrail was hit several times. Mostly these were small collisions, turbulence from small fish, but occasionally there were larger thuds and ripping noises. Once I was even treated to a display of bloody cloud whispering in front of my face.
It’s hard to describe what I was feeling then. I was caught between concern that I wouldn’t be able to do my part when the time came, concern that this crazy contraption wouldn’t work and I would drown in the middle of the ocean without Iara to save me, and wonder at this kind of stream-punk performance.
Before I was ready, I felt my companion begin kicking the board. Hearing his burbling and feeling him hit me repeatedly on the arm, I joined in. This mega-board added significant speed to the subrail. I realized we were now moving largely under our own power. The initial geyser of steam had lost its momentum.
I did manage to pick out several clumps of the spinefish. Mostly they just floated in place, quivering. But sometimes they would move together like a scurrying school, a troupe of dancing pincushions. Looking like aggressive cancer cells under a microscope, they blended together and squished the life out of everything nearby. A molecule of anti-life. Since I had never gone so far (nor so fast) before, I couldn’t be sure if my impressions were accurate, but it did seem like there were more and more of these things every time we got into the water.
Through the darkening gloom, I could make out that we were nearing some kind of outcropping. We sped toward another set of eyelets fixed to the rock, and the subrail turned course slightly. As we did, however, we blew right through a conglomerate of spinefish. I was pegged all over in at least a dozen different spots. The pain was incredible, and given the speed at which we were traveling, I felt like I had been hit with both barrels of a shotgun. My Atlantean clothing was torn and I was bleeding into the water.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
The Ambassador had been hit also, but instead of simple injuries, he had already begun to manifest signs of the spinefish fever. He must have been far more seriously assaulted than I was. Half his face had been gouged open and one eye was slipping from beneath his cheek. Even in this half-light I could see him writhing, first in pain and then in something else. I tried to move away from him, but because we were both strapped to the perpendicular bar, I could not. I didn’t want to unhook my wrists entirely; for fear that I’d fly backwards into the propeller. Fortunately, the ambassador couldn’t move either. He struggled against his bonds, but something about the infection must have kept him from thinking clearly. He didn’t unhook himself. Instead, he leaned his face persistently towards me. I’m not sure if he was trying to consume me or just take a nibble, but I did everything in my power to lean away.
Perhaps from the outside looking in, this scene would have made for good comedy, but just then I wasn’t laughing. The bonds on his hands were straining, and I had to think quickly. I slipped my feet out of the kickboard and released more air into my BCD (buoyancy control device). That elevated me to the top of the subrail and out of his reach. I wiggled my left hand free of the perpendicular bar. Reaching down to my bootknife, I sliced the bonds of the Ambassador and watched him whip backwards, coming loose from the kickboard as a result.
He was struck by the propellers and killed instantly.
The propellers didn’t fare much better. They were shattered and broken. The subrail lurched, and I almost lost my arm. There was a tremendous commotion as all forward thrust gradually came to a halt. I was sitting there, still firmly attached to the cables and still safely concealed within the subrail, when I realized why it came with a giant kickboard.
I slipped my feet back into the device and began kicking and paddling. I was on my own in the ocean for almost ten more minutes before I saw any light. Even at that speed the light grew from some fuzzy speck into something else very slowly eventually materializing into one of the jelly-covered tunnels. I was exhausted when I reached the jelly wall, which was a curious blue color instead of the yellowy-green from the outer colony. I came through, barely, and was met by several gillies. They reached their arms around my waist with visible concern and bolted me up to the surface of the capital railpool.
Where the outer colony’s railpool had been basic, a naturally occurring alcove upon which their engineers had capitalized, this was Grand Central Station. Every inch of the wallscape was covered with etchings and drawings. I thought maybe they were schematics, like when people hang old Leonardo da Vinci sketches on their office wall, but the calculations and measurements looked strange to me. I’m not much for mathematics, but even I can recognize numerals and distances and angles and fulcrums. These markings were altogether different, not just linguistically, but representative of an entirely new way of thinking. Every length was accompanied by waves and parallel tides and swipes. Heights were converted into words and phrases that seemed somehow to rhyme with the movement of the tides. They were a cosmetic algebra, an aesthetic calculus. Looking at them, I felt not only dumb, but ugly.
The scale of this railpool was entirely different as well. These ceilings could not have been formed naturally through lava flows. I saw unambiguous evidence of man-made supports and archways. It was a cathedral, and the saints were submariners. Even with the pressing crowds, I could still make out additional cars on several rails heading in alternate directions. Atlantis, it seems, is more like a many-spoked-hub than simple twin-cities.
I felt safer. Since this place had obviously been here a lot longer than anything in the outer colony, all my fears about the ceiling caving in disappeared.
Two women slipped into the water to help me detangle from the kickboard and get back onto the rocky shore. “Thanks ladies,” I said, gasping for breath. “I really appreciate this.” They accepted my tanks, mask, and regulator without ceremony, though one of them grinned at me as I continued talking. “I used to be in really good shape, but then your friend turned into a zombie and tried to eat my brains in the water. Everything’s okay now.” As I bent over, catching my breath, I saw a small contingent of fancy Atlanteans waiting patiently.
The welcoming committee was decorated with shells and conch, having a certain regal bearing and gravitas. The women wore necklaces and hairpieces, while the men had half-shells pushed to the top of their biceps like armbands. Given my propensity for comparing everything to biblical types, I guess it’s no surprise I identified these as the resident Sadducees.
In the Second Testament, Sadducees were the white-collar liberals. They didn’t bother much with the superstitions of their old, ethnic religion. But they were concerned with order and prosperity and with ethical behavior. This small cadre of three females and two males looked the part. Like the stranger who came to retrieve me from the outer colony, they were dressed in greenish-black robes. They were older, and one of the women even had flecks of grey in her hair. I realized I had not yet seen anything like wrinkles on any of the Atlanteans, so the grey hair stood out. This woman stood next to their spokesperson, a slender, dignified gentleman.
“Welcome to the Capital, David Mann. I am Pincoy.” He pronounced it ‘Peen-coy,’ and I confess I was amazed at his English. I half-expected him to ask me whether or not I had cast my vote, cheered for my favorite team, or preferred Simon to Paula. “Where is Mahnumet?” He asked. I must have looked confused. He clarified. “Where is the man we sent to bring you?”
Pincoy’s little eyebrows were tracing patterns of concern across his face. “He’s dead,” I replied. “We hit spinefish.”
Pincoy’s eyes shot open and a flurry of unfamiliar speech pitter-pattered back and forth between the members of the committee. The grey-haired lady looked at him, cooing “aehcb.”
Pincoy tried to reassure her, but the others were beginning to panic. Their dove-like speech was coming more quickly now.
I cleared my throat. “I’m sorry, Pincoy.” I began. “I don’t mean to be insensitive…but do any of you happen to have a bandage?” I pointed to some of my own injuries and was rewarded with several cries of alarm. Their fear of infection, even at a distance, spoke to the severity of the threat.
“I apologize, Dr. Mann,” said Pincoy, waving his hands to the two gillies who had helped me out of the pool. He summoned both medicine and refreshment. I drank the black sludge while the women showed me how to smear some of the jelly onto my arm. “We are concerned for you, of course,” said Pincoy, “but also saddened for our loss.”
“Does our talking surprise you?” Asked an older gentleman. I think he enjoyed saying that. He looked pleased that was could speak my language despite my inability to speak his. “We have many surprises. They are even better.” He smiled broadly, and then looked to his companions, eliciting their congratulations on his performance.
“You are invited to the games, doctor.” This last bit came from one of the other women, a younger one with an excited smile dancing through her eyes.
Pincoy picked up where she left off. “Queen Heqet asks that you greet her. The games are played for her. She wants to meet you. Then you will go to the Healing Center. You will help Schylla and Scyla, our best healers, in their quest for expiation. Please follow us.”
Standing there dumbly, I had a strong sensation that what I was doing didn’t align with where I was doing it. It reminded me of my visit to rural India, where–amid the foot-tall grasses and almost thirty miles from any electric lights–I had watched episodes of So You Think You Can Dance via satellite in a mud hut. The spokeswoman smiled at me, bringing me out of my thoughts. She inclined her head and partly extended her arm. It was an understated gesture, meant to communicate the utmost respect. At least that’s what I told myself, while gathering up my soft body and padding along after them on wet feet.
I mean, really, what else was there to do but follow?