I followed the Sadduccees through a maze of low-ceilinged tunnels. We were often greeted by small clusters of Atlanteans who inclined their heads respectfully to my escorts, but giggled at me. I tried to imagine how strange I must look to them. I think they are fascinating. I wonder if, in turn, they look at me and see a tittering porpoise?
“If you don’t mind, Pincoy, I’d like to ask a few questions,” I said. Like where are we? And how did you learn to speak English? And when can Lin and Iara come to join us?
“No questions,” said the older gentleman with a smile and a dismissive wave of his arms. “Just enjoy.”
It was hard not to. I felt like I was in a children’s fairy tale or a theme park. I saw magic everywhere I looked—not the pretend kind of magic, with spells and such, but real magic. The handiwork of the Almighty, His secret side-job kept beneath the playground upstairs.
In many ways the capital was like an exaggeration of the outer colony. There were more people here, and it was bigger; but the differences weren’t just in scale. Big cities have an atmosphere about them. So did this place. There was a buzz, an energy, a sense of opportunity. This was a place of scientific discovery. This was a place where athletes performed feats of daring. This was a place where surface-dwelling aliens were simply one additional curiosity among the thousands dancing around. There were animals in large jellied sacs on display in an amplified sort of koy pond. There were street performers, creating shapes in water as they blew it out there mouths, like circus-performers doing smoke rings. There were wonders and curios from the world above—not just old boots, but an iMac and a badly damaged diving helmet from the early part of the twentieth century. Clearly the Atlanteans knew we existed. Clearly they had seen some of us before, even if the prior specimens were already corpses.
Idly I wondered if all this cast-off stuff was the source of their topsider knowledge. Maybe they learned English from our garbage in the same way the poorer-parts of the world learned English from our television shows and Major League broadcasts?
“What’s that noise?” I asked. I heard a swelling murmur that sounded like the noise of a crowd.
“The games are about to begin,” Pincoy said. “Heqet is now in the water.”
“The Queen plays in the games?” I asked.
“No,” said the grey-haired woman. “She plays before the games.”
I tried to conjure an image of the U.S. President running around the track prior to the Olympics, but it was hard to contextualize that level of narcissism. “Do you like that?” I asked.
“Heqet loves it,” said Pincoy. His face reminded me of a kid eating candy for breakfast. Heqet might have loved the games, but there was no doubt where Pincoy’s affection lay.
We continued down one long, slowly-winding tunnel, but before we ever emerged into wide-open space, I could clearly discern the crowd. In those caverns, crowd noise reverberated, like someone had recorded a riot and re-played it through a guitar amplifier. The sound washed through Atlantis, and I grew more and more excited. I love big crowds. Academics don’t gather crowds, and I have always been secretly jealous of rock stars and big preachers. I want to be a big rock-star preacher, with crowds plugged into amplifiers, cheering when I slide on stage.
Emerging from our tunnel, I noticed again the evidence of engineering. This new cavern was impossibly tall. The light from the million glow pools couldn’t penetrate the surface ceiling, but I could distinguish other lights higher up. Perhaps as extreme as a hundred feet, I saw balconies and windows illuminated with that dim-blue azure from the bioluminescent algae. They had apartments and sky-scrapers here, or at least what passed for the equivalent. It was like looking up through a kaleidoscope.
As we walked towards the center of all the activity, people parted before us. They looked a little more…sophisticated than the Atlanteans I had seen previously. I saw more hunters and fewer farmers, and the gillies seemed less distinct from the other castes here. Normally when walking through the outer colony, I would see one or two of the gillies making little offerings here and there, but not in the capital. I guess I had seen that scene so often I had begun to take it for granted that their role was to make offerings; I felt indignant that these gillies weren’t offering anything. They were just going to the games like everyone else, even giggling like everyone else. But the gillies were priests–I was sure of it–and it felt wrong that they were derelict in their duties. Maybe that was to be expected. I guess even clergy are allowed to be silly once in a while.
We continued toward the nucleus of activity, a large pool in what appeared to be the center of the cavern. It wasn’t the largest pool I had seen, but it had a unique feature. It was elevated. Back in the States there are plenty of aquariums with pools that have recessed viewing platforms. You can walk down a little flight of stairs, turn left, and watch the beluga whales underwater through a giant pane of glass. Similarly, this pool was engineered for an audience. Nature would never design anything so ostentatious.
We descended a little flight of stone stairs, and I stood in front of a jelly wall perhaps eight feet in diameter. Several identical walls lined the edge of the pool, giving the appearance of a large pearl necklace keeping the pool water in check. Inside the pool swam a woman dressed in a dark red dress that flowed about her with an intelligence, always seeming to know how to stay out of the way of her face and how to continuously cover her legs. Her hair spread out into the surrounding water like a splash of paint, backlit by the glow-water.
Looking right at me, she swam to a set of stairs within the pool and emerged to deafening applause.
This, I gathered, was Queen Heqet.
A herald called out something in Atlantean. I have no idea what he said, but when he concluded, everyone inclined their heads as one, and I sheepishly mimicked them a moment later.
“aehfb,” He said. You betcha, I mimicked to myself, pretending I understood.
Heqet seated herself upon a coral throne as Pincoy approached her. Kneeling, he gently cradled her extended ankle in one hand and kissed the top of her foot. She contained her smile but pressed upward gently, and Pincoy stood before her, beaming.
I waited for an introduction, but apparently there were some forms to be observed. Pincoy motioned to one of the other Sadducees and received a scepter of some kind. It looked like a coral rod, blooming at one end and sharp at the other. This, I learned later, was the sopher shebet – the rod of the scribe – given to the Chief Giver in Atlantis. It originated in ancient Assyria and was used to inscribe the first clay tablets. He extended it to Heqet and she accepted it by the bloom.
Heqet was surrounded by an assortment of prettily ornamented priests, ambassadors, hunters, and farmers. She represented her people, just as she adorned them and displayed them with pride. Looking at the throne, it struck me that the surrounding coral was growing in a particular pattern. It had been sculpted, or nurtured somehow, into a shape I recognized from several wall-etchings and sigils around the capital. There were two shapes, actually, but they always appeared together. One half was like a great tear, and the other like a poleaxe or a halberd. Heqet raised her hand to the crowd, and I saw this same coral painted upon the inside of her hand. Queen and coral seemed to go together.
I noted six broad-shouldered warriors wearing some kind of crustacean armor, different than the kit worn by the hunters. Everything about the hunting gear was designed for under-water defense. In contrast, these guards were bulky. Instead of spikes sticking out at odd directions, they were armored in smooth, thick shells head-to-toe. Nothing was designed to make an enemy pay for biting them like the spikes on the finboards. Instead, their armor was meant to deflect and arrest. One couldn’t stab through that. Nor could one slice it. Looking at them was like looking at crab dinner holding a plastic fork. Everything about them said, “don’t even bother.” These crabmen protected the Queen.
I thought maybe Pincoy and Heqet were waiting for me to make my own introduction, so I took a step forward and raised my arm in greeting. “Hello Your Majesty, my name is David…”
Ouch. My greeting was cut short by the crustacean guard. As soon as I had begun moving forward, two of the crabmen had stepped in my path and crouched before me. One of them hit me flat-handed in the gut. Both looked ready to tackle. As they crouched, plumes like crab legs burst from their backs. This was a threat-display if I’ve ever seen one. There were six or seven crab legs, about three-and-a-half feet long, on either side of both crustacean guards. Each leg had sprung out like the frame of a wing in all directions. The legs quivered, making little forward-darting motions as if to suggest something that might be flung in my direction. I didn’t want to find out if this was actually going to happen, though, so I obeyed Pincoy when he spoke.
“David,” he said slowly, “please lie on the ground. Put your hands out.” I did as he asked and the crustaceans relaxed a little, their crab legs crackling back down against their spine. One of them, the one who had hit me, knelt beside me and patted me down. He checked my hands and paid special attention to my fingernails, as if checking for weapons. “All right, David,” said Pincoy as they stepped away from me. “You can get up. Please do not come forward again unless I ask you.”
No kidding, I thought.
“My Queen,” Pincoy began in English, addressing himself to Heqet. “Allow me to introduce Dr. David Mann.” I bowed. “Here is our one hope.”
Heqet slipped down from the coral throne and walked toward me. It surprised me when she took my head in her hands. She massaged the sides of my cheeks, near the jawline, and smiled brightly. She was perfectly happy–there are no other words to describe that face–and why not? To her, I was either an angel or an astronaut, come from the watery heavens. I live in the world that was like her stratosphere. And in between us there was a chasm of otherworldly beasts and creatures, demons and cherubs, mantas and cephalopods and gods. I was Incarnate. Anything I said would be Annunciation.
“Welcome,” she said in decent enough English. “I am sorry for…” she looked at Pincoy, struggling to find the foreign word, “…this. Please come with me.” I wondered then if John the Baptizer looked at Herod and saw happiness or horror in those first moments. I wondered if what began as the former soon deteriorated into the latter. Those in power are often fascinated with those who eschew it, at least for a while. Then powerlessness loses its charm. People are afraid it’s contagious.
“This is a great honor, David,” Pincoy said as he sidled in beside me. “Few have ever been into the home of Heqet.” Pincoy and I walked behind the Queen, escorted by the crustacean guard, though I learned that their proper designation was Knumai. Two waited outside, two stood down the hall, and another two accompanied us.
The Queen’s rooms were three-tied instead of the usual two, with pools and rivers all around. Some of the glowwater was even held above us by clever use of jelly lamps and man-made cocoons, lighting us from the ceiling just like our chandeliers back home. Every inch of her room was engraved with eccentric markings etched into the stone walls. I realized now where I had seen that strange shape so prevalent upon Heqet’s throne. It was the same shape Iara had traced upon Nessa’s body after she died. I don’t know what they call it, but because of its association with both her majesty and the coral throne, I began to think of it as Queen’s Coral. Heqet also had some telefishions like those Iara had shown me back in the outer colony. Fluorescent tableaufish illustrated and cartooned the story of the Atlantean people. I noted that these illustrations were different than those Iara had showed, however, with less an emphasis on the red worms and nothing about the war or the flood.
I asked Pincoy about it. “I’ve seen these kinds of fish before,” I said.
He nodded his head. “All of the colonies have them. It is important for us to remember the story of our people.”
“The ones there were different. This is a slightly different story.”
“Not so different, I think,” said Pincoy. “Each place emphasizes some small difference.”
“You pick the history you like, I suppose.”
“There is only one. But many stories within,” said Heqet, overhearing. She walked past Pincoy and me out onto a balcony. She seated herself and motioned for me to do likewise. As soon as I did I was bombarded with servants. They came quickly, kneeling one after another, at either side offering me drinks and snacks and massages and fans and touches and treats. The Atlanteans are hospitable to a fault, but this was an entirely new level of royal handling.
Pincoy remained standing, but lovingly placed his hand upon the Queen’s shoulder. She rested her cheek against it.
Here, in the presence of her translator, we began to watch the games. “To understand our people,” Pincoy said, “you must love the games.”
“I’m something of a sports fan myself,” I said.
“Here, competition and hospitality work together,” he continued.
“We give everything,” said Heqet.
“Yes,” said Pincoy. “We give, and we compete with our gifts.”
“You try to out-gift each other?” I asked.
Pincoy grinned. “We give everything to one another. The games are held in Heqet’s honor. What we do in the games, we do for her. But we also do for each other. People work hard here—joyfully, but hard—and the games are rest. We give everything to the games as a gift to the people. The more we give to the games, the more we give to them.”
“A competition in two directions?” I asked.
“That is so, Doctor,” he said, turning to watch the event at hand.
Despite having the hand-eye coordination of your average geriatric Cyclops, I’ve always enjoyed sports. I used to watch the NHL playoffs with my college friends, and (before the cancer completely addled his mind) my uncle Gerry and I used to talk endlessly about baseball, arguing over the finer points of professional ethics, strategy, and whether or not the American League should have a team in Puerto Rico.
Nothing in the world above, however, prepared me for the ferocity, athleticism, and spectacle of the Atlantean games. My arrival coincided with a lengthy tournament of champions. I liken these games to the Olympics, though smaller and wholly aquatic. Despite having no clue as to the population of the capital, it felt like “everyone” was on hand to watch. Amid streamers and banners, vendors and market-stalls engaged in frenzied trading and gift-exchanges with excited patrons and eager families. People were smiling and there was a tremendous energy in the air. I would have thought that my presence would create a commotion all on its own. I was wrong. It might better be compared to a visiting linguist from some eastern bloc country at a Big Ten football game.
I was caught in a spectacle sandwich. Heqet, in her regal beauty, began to speak on one side, while the games lured me on the other. One fellow in particular stood out among the rest. Fast, thin, and explosively strong, this young prince danced in and out and among his peers. I thought of him as Lithe, and wondered how such a character would fare at home in our own games.
Heqet interrupted my ruminations, speaking mostly through Pincoy. From what I’ve gathered, he is her Consort.
“Be filled with joy.” This sounded like a perfunctory greeting.
“Thank you, Majesty.” I felt like I should say more. “I’m…full.” I’m full? How dense! It was all I could think of. I’ve never been very comfortable around importance.
“Do you know where you are?” She asked.
Looking out over the games, I wondered if that was a trick question. This place was like nowhere else I had ever been. Just the foreign nature of the games was enough to remind me of that. “I have no idea where I am,” I said, half-absent while watching two of the larger Atlanteans towing a third underwater, all three equipped with finboards. Lithe was the one underwater. When he was beneath the middle of the pool, Lithe struck for the surface, burst up, and then performed tricks and twists in the air. “We have heard stories of a place like this. We call it Atlantis, but no one believes the stories are real.” Lithe’s landing initially looked disastrous, but ended with him momentarily surfing on the surface and then soaking the audience.
Heqet smiled at me, noticing my fascination with the games, almost forgiving my ignorance. “Zebulon.”
At the sound of this name I felt my godly geekiness kick in. “I have heard of Zebulon.”
Heqet clapped hands and nodded her head. She was pleased this was moving so quickly. “Then you know Rahab, Queen of Ocean-Seas, and Prince Yam her love.”
“I do. We have many stories of Rahab and Yam. It is known that Rahab has a frightful nature, that she storms, and that her anger with Yam caused so much destruction.”
Heqet shook her head, lips pursed. “That is not correct. Rahab is strong, but good. She storms, yes, but only when storms are required to stir up the deep. Yam angered her, but she did not kill him out of anger.” Heqet turned in her seat to better face me. “She defeated him and chained him to the bottom, and her tears flooded the world. Her sorrow sank the cities, and her favored people sank with them.”
“I know this story,” I began, cautiously, “only I did not know there were survivors of this great flood.” I wondered how Heqet was going to react to my version of these events. Rarely do zealots enjoy discussing comparative religion. “On the surface, only one family survived,” I continued. “It was an act of God that an entire people survived beneath the waters.”
Heqet didn’t give any indication of being angry. “In her mercy, Rahab sent Leviathan to shore up her people.” I enjoyed hearing the Queen pronounce that word. She said it Le-Vee-uh-Tawn. “Rahab sealed us in this place and caused Leviathan to make its nest at the entrance. He protects us. She was our first Queen, our teacher in the water.”
“I see.” Cautiously I continued, aware that the surface stories did not match those of the Queen. “Are you also curious to know about our Zebulon?” I asked.
Heqet considered this for a moment. “If we have people in the heavens, I would know.”
The heavens? It makes sense, I guess. Their heaven is just wetter than ours. “There once was a Zebulon in Israel, though she has diminished and some have been lost.” I began, before quoting from the First Testament. “Zebulon shall dwell at the haven of the sea; and she shall be a respite for ships, and her borders will stretch to Zidon, that place where celestial mysteries dwell. Rabbi ben Eleazar spoke of these ‘celestial mysteries.’ Mostly the mysteries concern rebellion. Perhaps that is the greatest mystery of all—that intelligent people could encounter God face-to-face and still revolt. Eleazar often recounted the stories of the Korachi, the sons of Korah. They rebelled against a prophet of God and the ground opened beneath them, swallowing them whole. But the rabbi claims these Korachi did not perish. They are alive, beneath still earth, living in the waters below. A man such as myself might wonder if you have ever seen them, or, perhaps, if you are all sons of Korah.”
Heqet sat in silence, boring a hole through me with her eyes. I met her gaze, but she wasn’t looking at me. This wasn’t a contest of wills. She was looking through me, adjudicating her past.
I took a moment to peek back at the games. The most incredible display was being given in the board aerials, full of skydiving falls, flips and twists and forward rolls. I saw Lithe land with such momentum that he gained air a second time, to deafening applause. I imagined, for a moment, they were cheering for me in my friendly theological riff with Heqet.
Heqet’s brow wrinkled and her eyes cracked at the corners. “What is this?” she said finally. “Do you not have more to share? Will you dangle these stories so lightly in front of your Queen?”
“I’m afraid that whatever I know, Queen, only concerns the heavens.” She did not look pleased. “But I am happy to share,” I recovered. “Most of our Zebulani stories are about people responding to Yawheh, to God. Isaiah tells us to lift up our voice and cry aloud from the sea. We must sing unto the Lord a new song, sing his praises from the ends of the earth and down into the sea, among all who dwell within.”
Heqet leaned forward into her chair, intently. “He commands Heqet?” “Apologies, Queen. Yahweh commands us all.”
“I do not like. Heqet is Queen. Who is this?”
The million-dollar question. Little did she know what she was getting into now. This was my shtick. “He Is. He Was. He Will Always Be. You may call Him Yahweh, but He is not a name. He is God above gods.”
“Ah,” she made a dismissive noise. “Rahab has no master. Do not speak of this here.”
I listened with plain amusement, watching Lithe and talking with Heqet. I imagined that I was every bit as skillful as he, ducking and dodging her attacks and spinning rhetorical circles for the crowd. “No? Then tell me, who fashioned the seas in which Rahab lives? Who trained the currents?” I was feeling cheeky. “Who taught the fish to breathe?”
“These things are. They do not need a teacher.” Heqet looked like she was tolerating me, forcing herself to be hospitable.
“We all need teachers. You claim Rahab was yours. Yahweh is hers. With permission, Queen…where did Leviathan come from? Did Rahab birth him? Or did he first belong to another?” I pressed my advantage. “For that matter, to whom does Rahab belong? Whom does she worship?”
“Rahab does not serve.”
“Everybody’s gotta serve somebody,” I said. Quoting Bob Dylan made me feel powerful. “Except Yahweh. The Unmoved Mover. The Prime Existence. The First, Who Will Be and Is Even Now the Last. He divided the sea with his power, and gathers it up again in heaps. He keeps it in the storehouse, just so He can hear it roar.”
She smiled then, as a mother smiles at her children, and pushed back. “Then why do we never see this God? Why does He never help?” I started to answer, but Heqet bulled over me, her intensity mounting as her questions doubled over on themselves. “Why do His children suffer? Why does He not cure our sickness? Why does He permit us such short happiness? What good is a God who does very little? You say, ‘He is great,’ but I say that only a God who does something could be great. Answer for Him, if you can.”
And here, surprisingly, I faltered.
I had had this argument a thousand times, and I could anticipate each move like a Grand Master working his way through the Latvian Gambit. Yet here my familiar logic floundered. Normally, when someone would ask me about the indifference of an infallibly good and powerful God, and how He justified staying uninvolved, I would counter with the story of Christ. I would tell them God was so invested in our world that He came here Himself, to live as one of us. The One we serve came, instead, to serve. He suffered alongside us, as one of us. Through his sacrificial, atoning death on the cross He exhausted the full measure of evil’s power to harm us, to rob us, and to bind us in sin.
God is not aloof, but painfully invested.
But there was no cross in Atlantis, no Incarnation. There were no Romans or Jews. As near as I could tell, there were only ancient Mesopotamians, trapped by the Great Flood, evolved into something peaceable and matriarchal and hospitable.
How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? How can I share the gospel in Zebulon when we don’t have any of the same history or culture or symbols to work with? How can I make them understand when I do not?
As I stood there, dumb, Heqet laughed. “You see, Doctor? You have much to learn.” She knew she had won.
“Apparently I do,” I said.
Heqet’s tone became kinder. “I will think more about Leviathan and the Father of Rahab.” The Queen stood as she said this, bowing slightly, and left the room, followed by her crabmen. P Pincoy then came to me and placed his hand lightly on my shoulder.
“Doctor Mann, thank you for speaking with our Queen. I have learned so much.”
“Sure,” I said, still confused by how the conversation with Heqet had ended. How could I have lost? “Call me David.”
“Certainly,” he said, now obviously ready to move onto new business. “I want you to understand what will happen next. With the Healing Center?”
“I will escort you. You will be staying there, in a place just for you.” He looked pleased with these arrangements. “This research is very important to us, and you are very valuable to our people.”
“I’m happy to help, Pincoy. Though, I confess, it doesn’t feel like I have much choice in the matter.”
“We are deeply grateful. And we hope to bring your friends to you soon. They would also be a great help.” He paused momentarily, looking down and, I thought, inward. “I would like to hear more stories sometime, if you are willing.”
“Of course. Do you have any Zebulani stories?”
“Yes. A great many. I will give you all that I have.”
A prodigious smile played across his face, and Pincoy rose and gestured for me to follow. I was still feeling stung after my conversational defeat with Heqet. I had really been enjoying that little exchange, until she outmatched me. Things were less pleasant afterward. But, between academics and religious people, I’d been in lots of boring and slightly hostile engagements before. Who knows? Maybe you have to get beyond the surface before you’re really able to believe.