I have fought my oppressor, and lost.
I am writing these words back on board the Sea Monk, several days after the events I’m about to describe. Nothing could have prepared me for the trauma, the risk, or the revelation I have received. The world is changed since we left the capital.
After Lithe and I were dismissed from Heqet, we learned we had only a few moments to gather our things before heading out to find the water demon, the Atar’atah. Most importantly, I needed the hydreliox tanks, one of which was full and the other which remained at two-thirds capacity. Two gillies would accompany us for the first thirty minutes out into the sea, oxygen sharing with us so we could conserve our own supply for the final few miles of swimming, the “quick” disposal of the water demon, and the return back to the capital. We were going—more than anything—in punishment for our inability to get along. Or so we thought. The logic was that a shared experience, a shared task protecting Atlantis, would remind us of our commonality. Given all the other dangers in the sea, I suppose the Atar’atah doesn’t rank as much of a threat. Sure, if they were allowed to breed unchallenged they might cause problems because of overpopulation. They might, for example, exhaust their food supply and screw up the food chain. But they weren’t a threat in the same way as the saurians or the spinefish. I wondered whether or not the gillies would be waiting for us after the battle and asked that question aloud. No one answered. This was going from bad to worse. If they didn’t meet us part-way back, I’m not sure I would have the reserves to get back home. What’s more, I’m positive Lithe couldn’t hold his breath for thirty minutes.
“My concern grows for Zebulon,” Pincoy said, standing next to me in the tear-shaped room at the Healing Center. He had escorted me back after our confrontation and sentencing with the Queen and was helping me get ready. I think he felt guilty.
“What do you mean?”
“I have told you, David. You are a gift. Gifts are not meant to be kept. We are givers, not recipients only.”
“It is better to give than to receive.”
“Precisely!” he said, momentarily delighted with my understanding. “Did your Christ teach you this?”
“Yes.” Among other things.
“It is frustrating that Christ understood our world so much better than Heqet does. And he has never been here. This is why the Erech have gone to the water.”
“The Erech?” I asked, curious about an apparently new group of Zebulani.
“Our priests,” he said, settling in to explain. “They are not all like your friend Iara or her brother Enki. Some of the priests have become Erech—citizens of the Second Society. They have left Zebulon. They do not need air to breathe, and so they live wholly in the water. As fish. Wild. They believe that we have been placed down here as punishment, and so they punish themselves to show their devotion to Rahab.”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“They left in protest, believing that Heqet has demonstrated new arrogance. They claim we continue to be disobedient. They say we do not make the offerings. That we do not worship. They claim we have abandoned the Way of the Gift. And so they live outside the cities. They punish themselves, cleansing the waters and staying separate, in order to shame us.”
‘That seems strange,” I said.
“Zebulon will remain underwater until her people finally understand the true nature of gratitude. Until then, only the most holy, most devoted priests brave the dark water.”
“They are not the only ones,” I said. “Lithe and myself—we are about to brave the water.”
“And so you are.” Pincoy smiled sadly. “Farewell, David Mann. I pray to Christ we meet again.”
I left Pincoy and made my way down to the Palace pool, my thoughts drifting from my thin Atlantean friend to Liz and Jonah. I’ve been such a fool. I assumed the worst about Liz—not that she was dead, but that she was unfaithful. She never gave me reason to believe that at home, and I’m ashamed to think of how quickly I thought ill of her down here. If anyone deserves poor treatment, it’s me. I never loved Jonah like I should have. I didn’t let myself. I never allowed my bitterness to be penetrated. And it cost me. Worse, it cost him. I can’t possibly imagine what is happening to his little body right now in the hands of Scyla and Schylla. They were anything but gentle with me at the end, and I can’t believe they have learned restraint or pity in the last few hours.
Only I’m not angry with them. Or Heqet. Or Liz, any longer. Only with myself. I was going out into the open water to search for restorative justice. I was looking for a way to be healed, to have my sins atoned for within the community. But I wasn’t sure I deserved it. I wasn’t sure Lithe deserved the same punishment I received, either. I also owe a debt to him. I thought of him as a mythological rapist, a wife-stealing misogynist. But he is not any of those things. He’s a remarkable man who got saddled with a raw deal—an uncooperative wife and an unwanted child. And now he was stuck with me, searching for redemption in the cave of the water demon.
That hardly sounded promising.
The beginning part of our journey was largely uneventful. We made it well into the channel Heqet had indicated to Lithe, and then the gillies waved us forward. I was again surprised by the abundance of spinefish. Whereas they had always been present, they were now proliferate. Everywhere we looked, those pointed devils budded and lurked in ambush.
Lithe didn’t pay me much attention. At this point he was still convinced I was his chief adversary. He rarely even looked at me, and once we were in the channel he took off while I got left behind for a minute while I was fiddling with my tank. I’m not sure how I managed to find him, but I did. I just swam straight ahead and kept right behind him the rest of the way. Waves from his finboard were pushing water into my face, so I always knew where he was, even though I couldn’t see ten inches in front of me.
Then, far off into the black, a light appeared, and another. A cluster of lights emerged and I recognized the little familiars. They danced together playfully, and through the murk I could make out the emerging-shapes of churchins. There were several of them, a convoy. And as they neared us, I was rewarded with my first picture of the Erech.
Though still a long way off, I could see them because of the light from the familiars. They were paired—one in a churchin, and one out in the open water with a long tool. I had a funny thought, comparing them in their vocation to hermit crabs. That’s what they were, little crab men with their tools, cleaning the deep, their homes on their backs. This tool was different than a spear. It was more like a shepherd’s crook, and the open-water Erechs were gathering something. At first I couldn’t make out what it was, and then it become clearer. They were gathering bodies. Using the long tools, they were hooking the bodies of dead Zebulani together into clusters. Lithe had stopped swimming, as had our two gillie escorts, and we all drifted in the water watching as the shepherds of the sea cleaned up a disaster that was equal parts ecological and societal. There had obviously been some kind of spinefish incident, though on a mass scale. Ten, perhaps twenty, bodies floated in the water, riddled with needles. They weren’t feral or zombified, just dead, just floaters. Just the leftovers of a prior disaster, tended by the only Atlanteans who seemed to care.
The Erech wore tattered robes, looking like specters. It seemed a miracle they still wore clothing at all, though it looked as if they still wore whatever clothing they’d had on when they abandoned the cities to join the Second Society. It seemed that they had abandoned not their people, but their way of life. They were committed to their species, but more to their principles, chief among them being, everyone matters, even when they are dead.
We watched for a few moments, squinting at the far-off picture, until the Erech disappeared into deeper gloom and we lost sight of them altogether. I felt comforted knowing they were out there. It was wonderful to know that we weren’t the only fish the in sea, so to speak, and beautiful to think that some people loved one another so much as to leave all corruption behind in devotion and service.
That’s what they were: servants and shepherds, the deacons of the deep.
This place, with its outer darkness, made me think of Qumran. In the Second Temple Period, a group of ultra-conservative Jews, the Essenes, lived in the desert like monks. Their community was located outside of Jerusalem in a place called Qumran. The famous Dead Sea Scrolls were excavated from these ruins, illuminating their extreme focus on piety. They believed that God would only bring salvation to His people if they completely separated themselves from the world’s corruption. Their writings, rituals, and lifestyle were marked by austerity and absolute devotion.
Those hermit crabs were the Essenes of Atlantis.
The good feeling supplied by the hermit crabs didn’t last, though. A great roar shook the water with a reverberation that visibly caused the wetness around us to quake. And then one of our gillie companions disappeared.
Lithe reacted instantly, grabbing my arm and pulling me forward, but the other gillie just swam in place for a moment stupefied. He didn’t last long. With a rush of movement and a gout of blood, he was gone too. Whatever was out there was big. And hungry.
We moved slowly through the deep water. We encountered no saurians, despite the blood, but that immense lurking menace was still with us. I wondered if this was the Atar’Atah, but something told me it wasn’t. Heqet had mentioned a “lair” and we were still in open water. This was something else, one of a hundred alternate omnivores looking for lunch. It passed overheard several times as if it were stalking us. Its every movement held weight. The dark loomed, and I felt it pressing. I was breathing hard, starting to panic. Lithe knew what was happening. He waved me off and down and bid me still, though I kept both my iron and my spear ready.
Lithe slumped. The monster came on, taking shape behind us as I turned to see it. It was fast, but didn’t look it because of its size. It was a giant narwhal, a big whale-ish thing with a unicorn’s horn twice as long as a man. I thought this was the end, but Lithe caught my attention. He coiled. It was a ruse! The narwhal approached and, when it was almost too late, Lithe sprang at its horn and wrenched the beast backwards. I glimpsed him wiggling his way on top. He sat astride the cetacean face, his heels kicking the creature’s eyes. Both arms held powerfully to its horn.
I got my feet under me. I was struck by its tail as the narwhal passed, but managed to hold onto it. Lithe saw my effort and forced his will upon the creature. It was fighting us, jerking us side to side, but Lithe had it under his control. He forced his will upon the creature, steering it, leading it by the nose away from this channel. The waters began to lighten, but I couldn’t tell why. Things kept going black for me.
Then we were thrown off, separated in the dark. Lithe waited for me to bump into him. Grabbing my arm, he led me down to the sea floor and placed my hands around the edges of a hole. It was approximately the size and shape of a manhole cover. I wondered how we were going to find our way back to the capital. But before the anxiety overtook me completely, Lithe disappeared into the hole. I followed. My gauges read that I had about 1800PSI remaining in the first tank, just enough for me to get back. I supposed that meant I would need to share the other tank with Lithe. Now that we were out here and it was just the two of us, I was starting to be just as concerned for his safety as for my own. Maybe that was the point, but if I’m honest, I didn’t really care much about “the point” right then.
Inside the tunnel, Lithe’s eyes glowed fiercely. Surprisingly, even his skin began to emanate a little light. It was a cool trick, and I wondered if that was his doing, or just some quality of the cave. I didn’t get a chance to ask, because his light was outmatched by something he brought out of his suit. It was one of the red worms. Lithe began pulling and stroking that sucker until it glowed deep red. He tossed it ahead of us like an organic road flare, shaking his hand a bit. The water buzzed in response to the small electrical current given off by the worm. His actions comforted me, distracting me from where I was and what we were about to do.
By the wormlight we could see that our cave was no larger than the inside of a moving van. But there were other manholes all over it, like we were in the center of a beehive. From within one of these, a light began to bob up and down: a cerulean star. I made my way over to it, but Lithe grabbed my arm. Startled, I took another look and saw what he saw. The Atar’Atah. It had an overgrown head but a very small body, like Mrs. Pac Man, with that blue light dancing on the end of an appendage across its mouth. It resembled an angler fish, but it seemed too large. It was big as a medicine ball, with teeth as long as school rulers. This thing looked mean, and I as tried to back up, it leaped out of the manhole and took a snap at me. Fortunately Lithe was ready and skewered it with his spear.
Grinning, I clapped my hand on his back. He smiled back. But our smiles disappeared as we realized that the water-demon wasn’t alone. Perhaps fifteen or twenty such lights began to bob in manholes all around us. We couldn’t see well enough to discern which of the few vacant holes would lead us back out into the ocean. With a drop in my stomach, I realized what was about to happen.
And then it did.
Like mutant, over-grown piranhas, the monsters came pouring out of the holes and latched onto us. I was immediately bitten in three places. They didn’t release, either, but hung on and wriggled their teeth, trying to tear off large chunks of meat. With his superior speed and agility, Lithe batted two away with his spear and then punched a third with his iron. The iron then flew to the side and bashed one off my elbow. He killed it, but in the process I dropped my iron. He also got one on my helmet, thankfully leaving me unharmed, which left one more still latched onto my thigh. Dropping my spear, I grabbed that devil with both hands and tore it free.
That was a huge mistake. In my rush of adrenaline I gouged my thumbs into its eyes and killed it, but now both myself and the demon were spewing blood. The remaining water-demons all came at me at once. If not for Lithe, I would have died right then. He was everywhere stabbing and poking and batting and blocking and spearing and bashing. A knight. A paladin. The best I could do was relocate my iron and hide behind it, keeping my back against the cave wall while Lithe did the rest. I got nipped a couple more times, nothing too serious, but by that point I was such a bloody mess it hardly mattered. Lithe took a bad one on the collarbone. The culprit was the last to die, and I had to pry it off my friend.
We were exhausted and badly hurt. Lithe looked like he only had a moment or so before he lost his remaining air, so I took my alternate second-stage regulator and placed it in his mouth. All regulators have an “octopus” for sharing air, and Lithe accepted mine warily. He choked, looked accusingly at me, and then shot the water out of his mouth and tried again. I motioned for him to breathe deeply. In less than a minute I waved for him to give me back the octopus. He didn’t need air as frequently as I did, and we would need to conserve it.
Not that it mattered. Even if we could keep oxygenated all the way back to the capital, there was no way we’d be able to cross that distance leaking blood like we were. If we didn’t drown, we would bleed out. If we didn’t bleed out, we would draw every carnivore for a hundred miles.
Lithe found the exit and made for it anyway. Or so we thought. I grabbed the red worm and followed him out. The little blighter shocked me, bringing me to my senses in more ways than one.
We were lost. The tunnel Lithe had chosen wasn’t the tunnel we were looking for. We had been swimming down this tunnel longer than it had taken to find the cavern of the Atar’atah. Lithe slowed, realizing this perhaps a little later than I did, turning around. I could see his face in the dark, barely illuminated by the glowworm, twisted with pain. Judging by the red mist wandering through the water, he was still losing a lot of blood. So was I. In the wormlight our blood looked like exhaust. I was feeling light-headed and sleepy. I just wanted to stop. Lithe shook me, though, and motioned back the way we came. Then we encountered a new problem.
Directly behind me was not one tunnel entrance, but three, stacked slightly on top of each other and a little askew. We could have emerged from any of them, as they all looked relatively straight. I started to panic, but Lithe brushed past me and went assuredly into the central tunnel. I followed. After a minute, he knew he had made the wrong choice and doubled back. But now we couldn’t find the junction of the three-tunnels.
Sensing that Lithe was struggling again, I offered him my octopus once more and gave him a large breath of air. That helped him, but I started to flail as he inhaled. My reaction was purely irrational. His taking air from the octopus did not affect my air supply at all, but I suddenly worried that it would and began to pound on his shoulders with my fists. Finishing his breath and returning the octopus line, Lithe placed his hands on my head and closed his eyes.
I received a small shock from his touch that jolted me back to reality a little, at least enough to keep me going for a minute more.
I mentally made my way through the Psalms: Cover me with your wings, oh God, that I may find protection. Protect me from the terror in the gloom, from the pestilence that stalks in darkness…
Without warning, my head broke through the surface of the water. I had not realized we were anywhere near a surface of any kind. Obviously we were out of the tunnel, having emerged in some shallow cavern. Very cautiously, I took my regulator out of my mouth and tested the air. It was fine. We were in an oxygenated environment and wouldn’t need air for a few minutes.
“Where are we?” I asked, sensing Lithe beside me. He responded with a lot of cooing and rasping. I still hadn’t learned any Zebulani, but was comforted nonetheless.
The ceiling was only about two feet above our heads, sufficient to breathe but providing no means for us to climb out.
Then little bubbles began to surface, burbling and popping all around me. As I peered back down into the water, I could see myself surrounded by clusters of little shining octopi. Only a couple of inches long, with cute little suckers at the end of their tentacles, they playfully latched onto my skin before pulling away. It was like that thing you do with the car window when you’re a kid. A blowfish. They were blow-fishing my arms and legs and chest, and despite everything I’d been through, it gave me the giggles. That should have concerned me more than it did. Nitrogen narcosis—deep-sea craziness—is indicated by foolish behavior. It’s one of the earliest signs that your body is losing the fight to stay alive. But I didn’t care. Even though I knew I should, I couldn’t force myself to get out of there.
More bubbles began to emerge, and a considerable amount of water was displaced by something rising up from the bottom. The shining octopi didn’t swim away, which gave me some confidence that whatever was coming was not likely to be a predator.
Only a head appeared. Like a VW Beetle standing up on its rear bumper, it had kind, sloping eyes, reminding me of Grimace, the old McDonaldland character. Further down, I could barely make out its arms, but the two more famously aggressive tentacles came up to rest on the surface of the water – a clear threat display from one of the oldest undersea villains known to man. This forty-foot behemoth was Architeuthis, if I correctly recall my old Saturday science TV shows: the giant squid.
I would have swum away if there had been anywhere to go. I didn’t think I was in danger, but I certainly didn’t feel safe. Being in the presence of such a creature was anything other than comforting. One of its tentacles could wrap me until I disappeared. It could swallowed me whole, or that black shiny beak could simply snip me into two pieces. Oddly, though, I didn’t feel in any way secure, and I didn’t panic, either. Unlike an oxygen shortage or the threat of bleeding out into the open water with the saurians lurking nearby, here I just felt an absolute certainty that I would die, or not, depending entirely on the disposition of the creature. I couldn’t defend myself against it. It was like Leviathan. It would kill me in one second, painlessly, or ignore me, or take some other undecipherable action that I would then deal with when the time came.
I was still bleeding, and I could hear Lithe’s breath coming faster and faster in the cave. His reaction was different than mine. Rather than sharing in my fatal resignation, he tensed his muscles and prepared to leap forward, to claw at the creature’s eyes with his bare hands if need be. I flicked water in his face abruptly, making him angry. But that was the point. I wanted to distract him. I wanted his attention focused on me instead of on the squid. I wanted him to understand that it didn’t want to kill us yet, and there was little reason to provoke it.
I shook my head fiercely. Recognition slowly spread across Lithe’s face. He relaxed, and we waited.
Dark ink began to rise from the bottom, like a black sunrise, eclipsing even the wormlight and the luster from the octopi. A thought flashed through my head. Listen! It was accompanied by an intense pain, a sharp spike driving through my brain just behind my eyes. Listen!
“All right, I’m listening!” I screamed out, the pain nearly unbearable.
“ghij!” Lithe screamed. We glanced at each other, realizing we were experiencing something together.
The voice was in our heads.
I am the Watcher in the Water, came the voice, the pain lessening as my attention focused upon it. I am Beholden of the Deep. I am the Teller of the Hallow.
Chayot! Lithe announced, though his lips did not move.
“Did you say that?” I asked, aloud, and Lithe darted his head to look at me. I had heard his thoughts.
You can hear me thinking? He asked, telepathically.
Can you hear me? I asked in return. This strange phenomenon was obviously connected to the squid and the ink—maybe it was some kind of hallucinogenic.
The pain lanced back through my head. “All right!” I screamed out loud, clutching both hands to the sides of my temples. This was a very effective communication strategy.
Look! Said the voice.
I noticed that the little octopi were gliding back and forth, and wherever they went, they created a space in the inky pallet made by the Qumran squid. Much like the library to which Iara had first taken me, these spaces created shapes. Like an undersea Etch-a-Sketch, every time the space was used up, the Qumran squid shot more toner to renew the pallet. A pattern emerged. The same cycle was being repeated over and over again. I recognized differing varieties of fish and sea creatures: Leviathan, of course, was easy to spot, but also the saurians and the spinefish. There were also clearly Zebulani. Just as in real life, they were separated into castes. I recognized the warriors because of their weapons, and the farmers because they were harvesting worms from Leviathan, and the priests because they were always kneeling at the edge of the water, making offerings.
The priests made offerings to the ocean, dumping a portion of all the hunters killed and the farmers prepared. Their offerings left detritus in the water upon which the bioluminescent algae fed and continued to glow. The offerings themselves sank after a time and were eaten by bottom-feeders, who were themselves eaten in turn. And so on. More and more and more of the algae appeared in the water. It didn’t look unhealthy, except to the spinefish. Every time the spinefish got near the glowwater, they withered, died, or withdrew.
You are in danger. Your leaders are corrupted. Your people are misguided. Your fate wanes. You must act.
What do you mean? I asked
Is this why you have summoned us? Lithe asked, at the same moment.
I have not summoned you, came the squid-voice. You have come unbidden, unless the Old One has summoned you himself. It is not for me to know. I am the Teller.
What are you telling us? Lithe asked.
To go back. To heal. To repair. To restore. To save. To fight. To die. To stop. The Teller spoke in measured tones, listing these actions like someone reading off the names of the dead in war.
To stop what? I asked.
To stop my mother, Lithe answered.
Yes, came the voice. To stop this.
The pallet was restored to black, and the whole cinematic sequence played out again, only this time the priests didn’t make all the offerings they were supposed to. Some of the priests made no offerings at all, and some of the priests seemed to be secreting away some of what they were meant to offer. They got fat. They traded away their extra portions for extra privilege. They still went through all the ritual motions of making the offerings, but at the same time, they pocketed a good deal for themselves.
Do you see? asked the Teller.
Is that just in the capital? I asked. I have not seen this…theft elsewhere.
It is everywhere, said Lithe. But worst at home.
What is it that fools men into thinking they can fool God? I wondered.
Look! came the Teller’s voice once more.
The diminished offerings had a systemic impact, ultimately resulting in reduced bioluminescence. No offerings meant no detritus, which meant no food chain—no red worms! Without their natural enemies to keep them in check, the spinefish multiplied dramatically. Their numbers continued to increase until they were shown clogging up all the natural fishing grounds of the hunters and the gathering places near Leviathan’s nest.
Do you see Leviathan? All the fish in the sea could not kill him. All the men in the world would do well to fear him. But for the negligence of man, the mighty fall. Leviathan’s home was crowded with spinefish, making it uninhabitable for him. The great tannin could no longer return home. His eggs withered and died, floating to the surface. He was to be the last of the greatest.
I wondered, not a little idly, if perhaps the beast from out of the sea in Revelation was Leviathan. Perhaps Leviathan would be driven to the surface in rage, or forced upwards because of the ecological impact of Zebulani negligence. Perhaps their Apocalypse was our Armageddon.
The sequence continued. The spinefish multiplied ever more, encroaching ever closer to the capital, until all of Zebulon was covered with them.
I know what I must do, said Lithe.
What must you do? I asked.
Go, said the Teller.
What must I do? I asked.
Go, said the Teller. I am Chayot. This was the last scene, the Atlantean Apocalypse, and by the time the ink had cleared, the Qumran squid was already gone. I watched the little octopi descend like miniature parachutists. With all their blooping and pumping, they looked like hearts beating as they got smaller and smaller in the chest of the sea.
I looked at Lithe, and the two lamps in his face were fully opened. “bcd?” he asked, proving my theory that our temporary bout of telepathy was exclusively the result of the Architeuthis. Regardless of the communication barrier, though, it was clear that he was as shocked as I was. Lithe hadn’t known about the negligence in Zebulon. He hadn’t known the spinefish profusion was connected to the lack of offerings. He hadn’t known his mother was to blame. More dramatically, he hadn’t known that Chayot was real or that it could communicate telepathically. He hadn’t seen any of this before. It was new. I’m sure of it. And terrifying. The self-destruction of Atlantis was a horror we had to avert. Lithe had a responsibility as Prince to intervene and lead his people back to a sustainable way of living. I had to help, too; because I was there, because I met Chayot, and because Atlantis had once felt like my home.
This was the moment when I began to wonder about the real purpose of our mission for “restorative justice.” It all seemed a little too perfect to me now, when appraised from Heqet’s point of view. She had power, but like all people in power, she feared those who threatened it. Her power was based on a careful deception. She had told the Zebulani people, in effect, that their old civil religion was just a formality, a tradition with no real purpose. As a result, in the capital, the people didn’t really observe the religion anymore. However, their religion actually carried some real-world significance. Their adherence to the Way of the Gift kept the ocean’s food chain going, most importantly controlling the spinefish population. In times of disobedience, the spinefish flourished and the Zebulani were at risk. I’m not sure if Heqet knew all the details, but she definitely knew that if Lithe challenged her power on the basis of the real-world significance of their religious observance, Heqet would lose. Lithe was a threat to her power. She had to get rid of her son.
At the same time, I was the chief obstacle prohibiting her from finding a cure to the spinefish toxin. Jonah was the only possible solution: part Atlantean, part human. If anyone’s vibrations could be harmonized, it was Jonah’s. Liz must have known this. It’s why she was so keen on giving Jonah to me when we first met. It wasn’t that she didn’t love me or didn’t have time to speak to me; it’s that she had limited time to do the single most important thing in the universe. She had to protect our child from the people who wanted to use him as a lab rat. Because Zebulon, in public practice anyway, is based on a gift-exchange, her best option was to give Jonah away. This, incidentally, must also have been why Heqet gave Lithe to Liz. Lithe belonged to Heqet. If Lithe married Liz, then Lithe had the next-best claim to Jonah as his step-father. Had something happened to Liz—which, I’m sure it eventually would have—Lithe would have taken possession of the child and in so doing given access to Heqet. I was the monkey-wrench in the whole plan. When Liz gave Jonah to me, she ensured Jonah could not be given to Heqet.
Lithe was the threat to her power. I was the obstacle to her success. By sending us both to the Atar’atah, supposedly on a mission of reconciliatory justice, she eliminated two birds with one stone. Our chances for survival were never very good. Pinocy knew this, and that’s why he was so worried.
We had been sent out here to die.
Lithe tapped me on the shoulder. He motioned under the water for us to leave and I quietly put my mask back on and inserted my regulator. He led me back down the system of tunnels. I had maybe four minutes of oxygen. I wasn’t sure what we were going to do with that, but I had to believe that God would never have allowed us to come this far only for us to drown out here in the water. We knew what was going on. We knew we had been commissioned to stop it. I knew Liz and Jonah were in incredible danger. And even though I knew 900PSI was nowhere near enough to get us home, I wasn’t ready to quit.
And, true to form, I didn’t have to.
I vented my BCD and sank straight down. Lithe came after me. we descended forty or fifty feet before the ground began to slope and we were led into a new tunnel. We followed this tunnel as it twisted, and I noticed that things began to lighten. When we emerged from around a sharp turn, we came into a very broad channel and were greeted by quite a sight. The Erech, or Mollai as Pincoy had once called them, had gathered to see us. Having temporarily abandoned their caretaking responsibilities, they lined the exit from the tunnels like runway lights, each cloistered in their own little churchins, robes billowing in the water, like cephalopod saints lit by thousands of familiars. I felt an incredible and holy joy when I saw them.
But that joy was overshadowed by my relief when I saw Iara, dressed similarly in vagabond chic, at the end of the line. She was part John the Baptist and part Joan of Arc. A vision of austere sanctity, she nevertheless gave off that old heat even through the water. She was passion and zeal. I wondered how she came to be Erech. What had happened in the outer colony? Had they become lazy and indifferent like the priests in the capital? Like Heqet? That was hard for me to imagine. I had a clear memory of Goliath, at least, paying special attention to the forms and rituals of Atlantean civil religion. And at the feast, prior to the spinefish incident with the feral boy, I remember vividly how the people responded to his demonstrations of devotion and care. They had bowed. They had been silent. They were devout. Something else must have happened. There had to be more to the story. I wondered if I had a part in her appearance here. Maybe she was coming to rescue me? Maybe she was angry?
I went to her quickly, respectfully inclining my head to the hermit crabs as I passed. Lithe followed, allowing me to momentarily take the lead. He had never seen the Mollai before and, as a result, was much slower to proceed. He seemed to be soaking it all in, to remember later. He was enthralled. I was, too, but with Iara. It was awfully good to see her.
Each successive Mollai withdrew into the black water, familiars winking out and inviting the darkness home. My lungs were burning and I thought about how ironic it would be if I drowned now. But the next thing I knew Iara had me inside her churchin. She pulled the water from my lungs with her mouth, pumping the liquid with her vacuum face. I coughed and sputtered and swallowed more water, but she did it again. Again. Briefly recovered, I hung there in the deep with a head full of cement and a wicked pain in my chest. Iara turned her attention to Lithe, who didn’t look much better. We were both still bleeding, and even with a familiar face, I wasn’t sure we were going to make it. Iara’s churchin was the last in that long line of hermit crabs, and it was outside in the open water. The saurians would soon catch the scent of blood, and with all three of us in the churchin, there was no room for everyone to keep in the middle. Nevertheless, as Iara began to roll us forward in that urchin-temple, I hoped and prayed for the best. Every few rotations she would have to stop and oxygen share with me. Lithe needed less air, but Iara still stopped about every five or six minutes for him.
Turning to me, she gave me one forceful breath, more of an oxygen bellow than an oxygen share, and then she turned to Lithe. Iara had her back to me, but I could tell she was gesturing. Lithe was just looking at her, bleeding. She took his iron and his spear, both of which he had managed to retain despite all we had endured, and swam out of the churchin and out of sight.
I looked at Lithe, who shook his head. I fought hard not to panic. There was no way I could hold my breath for even a couple of minutes. I almost let all my air out in one fell swoop, just to get it over with, but my despair was interrupted by fear.
The saurians came. It was hard to tell how many there were, but they came in hard and fast, ramming the churchin with their snouts, teeth flashing and bottom lips clamping against the tines. I got nicked from behind by one of them and opened my mouth in shock. Only a little air escaped, but I was down to my last few breaths.
It all seemed so unfair, like death was inevitable down here. If the sea monsters didn’t get you, the sea would; if the sea didn’t get you, the evil-Atlanteans would; if the Atlanteans didn’t get you, the high-pressure atmosphere would get you eventually. I wanted to scream, but knew I couldn’t. I felt my fear turning into anger. Lithe grabbed the churchin and began to roll us once more. I grabbed hold of him and forced his mouth open onto mine, stealing some of his air. I gained just a few more precious seconds of life while he continued forward. The churchin, our only defense, was getting badly damaged. If it were to break, we would be dead in the water. We were too weak to fight back, especially against so many. Despair hung over my companion and me, making the water thick for us. We could hardly move.
We were hit over and over again from all sides. The saurians were oblivious to the small wounds they received from the churchin tines. Their blood lust was too strong, their desire for flesh not easily overcome. Suddenly, one of the tines that Lithe was holding snapped. As it popped open, one of the smaller saurians was into the urchin in a flash. Caught, it slashed around us furiously. We both got scraped, and fresh blood leaked out from new wounds. In a fit of either bravery, inspiration, desperation, or stupidity, Lithe stuck out his forearm and let the saurian clamp down it. The bottom lip of that shark-monster extended to three feet and coiled itself around Lithe, its serrated teeth sawing back and forth on his arm. But the saurian wasn’t the only one with a grip. Lithe wrapped his other arm and both legs around the beast and set to work, biting back with his sharpened incisors. Another of the saurians broke through a different part of the urchin, and a third came through the previous hole. I coughed out the last of my air as the second one rammed into my back. Lithe came to my rescue, clubbing that one with his bloody stump, having killed the first saurian invader; but, as he did so, the final intruder caught hold of his helmet and began thrashing about. I heard a crack and thought it had broken his neck, but it was just one of the tines.
Iara returned and set to work threshing those parasites with Lithe’s spear. Sticking her head into the churchin, she gave me some air. I needed it, but Iara paid a price for her help as two of the sharks bit into her. She shook them and hit them and tried to bash them off of her leg. I was unable to reach them, though I tried in vain by stretching my arms through the spaces in between tines. This futility lasted only a moment, though, as the reason for her abrupt departure became clear.
The churchin was hit hard from behind and driven forward twenty or thirty feet. At first I couldn’t understand what had happened. The impact was so powerful I was propelled against the back of the churchin. The tines dug into my back, and I coughed up the last of my air. I could feel little jets of water pressing onto the skin at the back of my neck. The saurians skeetered away as we continued to be propelled forward.
He had cradled the churchin in the nest of his seven heads, holding us like a catcher with a ball in his mitt. Iara now sat astride his foremost head, looking like a wet valkyrie. I don’t think I’ll ever entirely get over my fear of this creature, but neither do I think I’ll ever dread seeing him up close again. We must have been closer than I had realized to the outer colony, which was a relief, given our circumstances. The churchin burst through the jelly wall and continued up into the central, large pool of my first underwater home.
I was unprepared for what I found.