We were brought into the Queen’s chambers and unceremoniously dumped onto the floor. I slumped against the wall, but Lithe stood up straightaway. Pincoy was there, and Heqet with her crustacean guard. Liz came in, accompanied by Derkato, Dagan, Enki and Hadad. Derkato was carrying Jonah.
Ignoring us for the moment, Heqet turned to one of the Knuma. “abcdefghij,” she said, pointing down the hall. The crustacean guard nodded once, abruptly, and then jogged down the hall. He returned a moment later with two more of his kind, but with everything else happening I didn’t notice until later.
My previous audience with the Queen was infinitely more pleasant.
Pincoy began, priming the pumps for what was about to be the Queen’s big blow. “David. Life in Zebulon is a gift. Life itself should be based upon generosity, abundance and delight. That is why there is no commerce. Only hospitality.”
Heqet interrupted him, stalking closer to me. The Knumai came and grabbed me by the underarms, hoisting me to my feet. “And that is why we do not punish. We heal.” All right, I thought, dangling between the crabmen like gutted shrimp. This should be good. Lots of places on the surface practice models of restorative justice. That means they weren’t going to throw us in jail or anything. We’d get a chore, or a task to complete. Like glorified community service.
“If any two should be as brothers, it is you. David, surface-relation to my adopted daughter and Glaucus, my son.” Glaucus? Lithe was Prince of Atlantis? Something told me this wasn’t going to work in my favor. “You both love the same woman so deeply you fought for her. And yet neither of you have conquered her.” Inwardly I chuckled at the idea of conquering Liz, but that faded when I thought of Lithe and how much more likely a conqueror he would be.
“You will go to the place of the Atar’Atah.” What is that? I wondered. A monster? An undersea landscape? Another colony? “We have heard there are hatchlings.” A monster, then. “Those you must leave, but the mother cannot live. Too many of these and we will hurt too much. Sacrifice the mother, but do not harm the hatchlings. Do this together and you will be as one. Return home as brothers. Return to me, David Mann, in honor.”
“You will have no women,” Pincoy said, which I thought was pretty creepy. “You will go in the dark, without the familiars.” That put a piece of the puzzle in place for me, for I hadn’t yet put my finger on when or why those glowing constellations appeared. “You will have to rely on each other.”
I noted that Heqet showed some emotion when she looked at Lithe. It may have been admiration, or disappointment, or sadness. But something danced across her features every time she looked at him.
Lithe didn’t seem worried, but I noticed the Prince Consort looked particularly uncomfortable when the Queen informed us we were going after the Atar’Atah. “Pincoy,” I began, “what is the Atar’Atah? How would I call it?”
“It is hard to say for you. It is a swimming thing, an angry thing. A demon, I think.” Great. This thing, loosely translated, means angry water demon.
“Wait a minute,” I called out to Heqet as she began to move away, “what about the tests? For the spinefish toxin?”
“They are done. You have not helped,” she replied, matter-of-fact.
“What about Jonah?” Derkato was still holding Jonah, but he looked like he was keeping Liz from taking the baby. When I looked closer, I thought I saw Hadad holding her arms. I didn’t like this.
“There’s wonder in your son, David Mann,” Heqet began. “He is from your world, but has been born into ours. May I have permission to keep Jonah for you?”
“Sure,” I said. I couldn’t take him. I didn’t think Liz wanted him, otherwise why would she have given him to me in the first place? She never even visited, so I figured it was okay.
But I was wrong. Liz erupted. “What?! No!” She yelled. “Give him to me!”
A cat’s smile stretched itself across Heqet’s lips. “Schylla and Scyla will make sure no harm comes to the boy.”
“What are you talking about?” I felt confused.
“David, don’t you get it?” Liz asked. “They’re going to use him. They’re going to experiment on our son!”
“Whoa. Time out. Let’s not forget that he’s your son, Liz, not mine. Don’t go blaming me for your indiscretions.”
“David!” She looked genuinely shocked, and for the first time I wondered if maybe I hadn’t been reading the situation very, very wrongly. Liz gathered her senses in time to see Heqet relieve Derkato of his burden and walk towards the rear, more private part of her chambers.
The Knumai were there, and we were forcibly dismissed. Outside, in the hall, Liz grabbed me by the front of the shirt. “Listen to me. I was pregnant when Dignite crashed. I didn’t know. The pregnancy was painful, and the labor lasted a long time. There were complications. All births are done in the water here, and Scyla and Schylla placed me in one of the pools. But there was too much blood. I was dying. So they began to patch me with some of the jelly. I was ok, but Jonah was born late. To be safe, they transferred him right from my womb into an artificial one. Into the jelly. He went from one amniotic sac into another. He probably never even noticed. They kept him there for three days, floating and swimming in the jellied pool. The gills started to form during the second week afterwards.”
I tried hard to grasp the full significance of what Liz was driving at. “What are you saying?” I asked, a slow horror working its way up from my belly.
“He’s your son, David. And you just gave him away.”
Liz’s tears were vibrating on her glowering cheeks, but I don’t think she was angry enough. I hated myself in that moment. But Lithe and Pincoy snapped me out of it. We had to leave. We only had a few moments to gather our things. Mine, most importantly, included oxygen.
I was already finding it hard to breathe.