Everyone was either dead or dying. Bodies spilled out like trash from a bin: hundreds of littered corpses. Most of these were fresh, but the cavern already smelled like a fish market. Upon closer examination, I saw that each of the corpses were punctured with black spikes. I don’t know what happened or how, but there must have been some kind of spinefish invasion. It was a B-movie. It was slaughter. It was an extinction.
When I first crashed in Atlantis, twenty-six days ago, I was filled with absolute terror. I was afraid I would die. I was afraid the ceiling would cave in. I was afraid of the Atlanteans. But it only took a short while before my fears were transformed. I wasn’t afraid but convinced that this place was my destiny, where I was always meant to live. This was who I was and where I belonged. I felt like the outer colony was my home. And when I went to the capital and the Healing Center and learned all that I did about Liz and Jonah, I often longed for home. Not America, but Atlantis. My true home. Where I belonged.
Standing there now, in the midst of this devastation, was absolutely heart-breaking. It was like coming home to see that your house has burned down. But not just my house or my neighborhood. Everyone who made me feel safe, and the place in which I experienced that safety, has been razed. Nothing is left.
“Hello?” I called out, but half-heartedly. I’m not sure I wanted to witness someone with darning needles stuck in their eyes begging me to yank them out. “Is anyone breathing? Anyone not a mindless, face-eating monster?”
“Daveed?” Iara looked at me, trying out her English pronunciation. “Okay?”
I nodded. I’m okay. Jonah is not. Liz is not. Atlantis is not. But I am. Hasn’t that always been the case? That my self-loathing and self-pity have armored me against my circumstances while those I’m supposed to protect suffer for my selfishness?
I looked over at Lithe. He wasn’t okay either. His entire world had just been exposed as corrupted and decaying. He looked waster. I circled my way around to him, careful not to touch anyone for fear I would get pricked. A sharp movement off to one side caught my attention.
“Over here!” I called out, looking at the only person alive in that large cavern, though barely. I knelt down beside her. “It’s going to be all right,” I lied. There was no way this was going to be all right. There were only two needles jammed into her neck, but she was still whipping her limbs around and stretching her jaw in that agonizing motion that reminded me precisely how horrible this toxin was.
I remembered my earlier comparison to hamartiology. The spinefish toxin is like sin. The wages of sin is death. Somehow, the convenience of such similarity seemed improper. Don’t get me wrong, I felt like it was more accurate now than ever. Sin, when it is full grown, leads to death. But it was wrong to move so quickly from human suffering to theological reflection. Compassion, mercy, action, love; these are the things that should always precede theology; but I couldn’t help myself from thinking the way I did. I felt sad about that, but sadder about the fact that I could do nothing to help this woman.
“Iara!” I called out, as she and Lithe finally appeared at my side. “Can you help her?” I asked.
Lithe stepped up with a rock and gave us a warning glance. We had time to look away, and he put her out of her misery. I thought of the rabbit I ran over on the way to Sebastian’s and of my own botched mercy kill. I could not have done what he just did. Death has a way of splashing on you, and I hate stains.
Moving over to the volcano side of the cavern, we were able to discover something of what had happened. Someone had caught a large fish–—not as big as the elephantfish, but still big enough to be a formidable catch. It had greeny-brown, leathery skin, and was the same basic shape as a weeble-wobble.
The water-wobble fish had been gutted and hundreds of spinefish covered the floor, in all sizes and in a few different gradients of blackish grey. When we inspected more closely, I could tell there had been some manner of explosion. Needles from the spinefish were embedded in the wall. My guess is that someone forgot to account for the difference in pressure between the open water and the colony. Out there, in the water, the pressure was over 300 times more than the atmosphere. Without those nanobots Sebastian’s medic had injected, we’d have been crushed as soon as we passed through the jelly. In here, though, the absence of such pressure would have the reverse effect. Instead of crushing whatever was inside the fish, it would create a vacuum 300 times more potent than gravity. Those needles would have been flying through the air at approximately 13,000 miles per hour, which is just a pinch less than it requires for a space shuttle to break free of the earth’s orbit.
After some time, we found evidence to this effect. A little girl was pinned to the back wall, some of the needles going right through her. She looked like a specimen in a bug collection. Her entire body was covered with needles, so that I could barely tell it was a person. She must have jumped the gun and done the chore she had seen her family do a million times. Likely she did it without any supervision, just a kid trying to make mommy proud. A rookie mistake. But with the water-wobble fresh from the spinefish smorgasbord, it had started a pandemic.
From off to the side, I heard Iara make a panicky little noise, part-way between a yelp and a squeak. Lithe and I came over to see what was wrong. I wish we hadn’t. Iara was reacting to a group of infected as they collided in one of the main thoroughfares. Gathered together, we watched as they snarled and fought and shoved one another. I remembered the feral little boy who had become such a rage-monster when he was infected. Here was the same sin at work. Aggression and hostility were the catch of the day. What began as an angry brush up exploded into full-blown war. These poor creatures had become rabid, content to tear one another to pieces and—I was sure—us as well.
We were just about to move away when Iara caught her breath, and Lithe slowly closed his eyes. A young woman was walking tentatively into the streets, getting closer to the crowd. I recognized her. It was Jailer’s girlfriend, the one who had been bitten during our saurian hunt over two weeks ago. She was approaching the mob cautiously, inching closer. She called to them, eking out someone’s name. She knew him. I knew him too, when he turned. It was Jailer. Infected, his eyes were bloodshot and his fingernails were broken off. He shuffled when he walked, and his veins showed black through the skin. He yawned and snarled and craned his neck to see who was calling his name. And then, like an animal, he attacked. The others were drawn by the sound, and they joined in the frenzy. No longer fighting among themselves, their ill-attention was fixed upon the girl. As they swarmed her, her cries weren’t those of someone seeking rescue, but of someone protecting her loved one. She was pleading, Please, don’t hurt him, please don’t do this. But they were zombies, violent, thoughtless creatures of impulse and hurt; ruined men and women whose minds had degenerated through the toxin of sin. They were immune to mercy.
We ducked into the railpool, its entrance sealed off with one of the jellies. It wouldn’t keep that foreign horror out, but it did keep us from attracting their attention. If my guess was correct, and it was, they would only launch themselves at something obvious, something right in front of them.
Both Lithe and I were badly bleeding, especially now that we were in a lower pressure atmosphere and there was nothing pushing the blood back into our bodies. Iara helped us discreetly collect some of the jelly from the door, and we smoothed it over our wounds. Though the jelly kept the blood in, it burned. Through the doorway we were still able to see the infected outside, though I was quite certain they were in no danger of paying attention to us. It was a horrible sight.
“Is this why you left?” I asked Iara, gesturing outside, “why you became Erech?”
“Yes,” she said. “Bad here.” I was thankful Lin had been teaching her English. Her vocabulary was pretty limited—twenty or thirty words and phrases—but it was awfully helpful right about now.
“You were trying to help?” She nodded. “Were you happy as Erech?”
“I miss you,” she said. I wasn’t sure if she was sad or happy just then, only that the tone of her voice cost me a million little heartaches. I wondered if I had started something inadvertently. I wondered if I wanted it to end.
“I am glad you are safe,” I said, meaning it wholly.
“Yes, Daveed,” she said, placing her hand gently on my face. “Safe with you.”
I thought about that for a minute longer. It was strange how badly I wanted to tell Iara I loved her, but strange also that I didn’t. Not really. I was confused, torn in two directions. It was probably my injuries. Our wounds were so severe. We still needed medicine. We needed painkillers. We needed shelter. We needed food and water and rest. But, for the moment at least, we were safe.
I could figure out my feelings later on if I didn’t die.