My mind has been racing non-stop since we returned to the capital. Is Jonah safe? Have they hurt him? Where is Liz? What is happening all around us? Why does it feel like we are sitting on a powder keg? If they have truly found a cure for the spinefish toxin, why isn’t everyone dancing in the streets?
But, of course, I have no answers, only new questions. Questions pile on top of one another, vying for position.
Pincoy isn’t much help in that regard. He’s still making milk runs for us, not only bringing food and supplies, but also keeping us informed of all that’s going on in the wider Zebulani world. “Heqet insists that Glaucus is here, raising a revolution,” he said today.
“He is,” I replied. “He’s just too sick for it to begin.”
“Her search parties are everywhere. The city is like nothing I’ve ever seen. It doesn’t feel like Zebulon. It feels hard.”
Lithe moaned. “cb?” he said, sitting up partway.
“ghh.” Pincoy replied. The thin little man then turned to me. “I think he’s getting better,” he said, and, for a moment, so did I. There was no denying Lithe’s strength of will. He had the determination to lead.
I didn’t say this, though. Some cynical part of me spoke up instead. “Really? Look at him. He looks caught halfway between life and death. His skin feels like warm candles. He’s pushy and gooey, barely able to talk.”
Pincoy shook his head, his whole body really, like he was warding off a chill. “He will recover. He must.”
“He’d better. For your sake.”
“Do you really mean so little as that?” Pincoy asked, eyes searching my own for some sign of altruism.
“No,” I said. “Your people deserve better. Lithe is a good man, a noble man, and everyone deserves a leader they can follow, even if none of us have come to expect that.”
He was silent for a moment, thinking. Then he spoke up again. “What about your escape plan?”
I thought about that for a moment. “I think the ballast will get us to the surface, but we need to think of something to keep us from exploding on the way up. We must be protected from the pressure. Once the atmosphere lessens, the balloon will expand indefinitely. We’ll pop before we can be rescued.”
“Do you have any ideas?” he asked.
“Maybe. The bigger issue, truthfully, is getting to Liz and Jonah.” I said this absent-mindedly while playing with the balloon ballast. I don’t know what I planned to do with it. Once upon a time, Chris thought it could be used as a means for our escape, but with the Sea Monk scuttled, we didn’t have access to any of the necessary equipment that would allow us to survive a rapid ascent.
Rifling around in the ballast carrying case, I felt something hard and rectangular in the bottom. At first I thought maybe it was a protective flooring within the case. But as it came loose, I realized it was something else. Pulling and yanking, I maneuvered it until I could sneak it past the ballast and out of the case. It was a grimy-book, heavy and with clumps of fleshy-looking bits flaking off the cover.
“It’s Chris’ sketch book,” I said to no one in particular.
“Pardon me?” Pincoy said, only then did I realize I had interrupted. He kept talking, but it was hard to concentrate on Pincoy when I held this magnificently malevolent artifact in my hands. Flipping through, I noted that every page was covered with notes and projections, dimensions and suggestions for how to make everything different. Chris was redesigning creation. He was remodeling humanity, and I included the Zebulani in that ever-broadening term. The sketch book was like his architectural plan for how to make everything ordinary into something cryptozoological—for turning the mundane into myth.
Pincoy continued his breaking news. “As I was saying, two of the other colonies have been affected by the spinefish. That makes three out of the five, sixty percent of Zebulon.”
That sounded significant. “What happened?” I asked.
“The first was simple bad luck,” he continued. “A group of farmers were gathering from Leviathan. The current was stronger than normal, and Leviathan made to shelter them. He inadvertently brushed them right into a big forest of spinefish. They returned back to their colony just as the toxin was manifesting. They turned. That colony has gone entirely silent. I fear the worst.”
“What about the other one?” I asked.
“Collateral damage. It was very close to the previous infection. We believe that some of those infected must have headed there instead of back to their own colony, in hopes of finding help sooner. Since just one needle is enough to infect, and since the needles can be passed from victim to victim without diminished effect, the two or three from the outer colony were able to pass on the sickness to well over a hundred others before the hunters were finally able to get the epidemic under control.”
“Did they regain control?”
“Yes, David. But the damage done was unprecedented.”
“What about the cure?” I asked. “You said they could match Jonah’s frequency. Why can’t the healers help?”
“They can. But the anti-toxin doesn’t last, and it can’t be moved. People have to be here to benefit from it. And they do. I’ve seen Scyla and Schylla passing spinefish between them like it was a game. I can see their veins turn, and their eyes go red, but they get into the water with Jonah and run their harmonies. They’re fine.”
I shook my head. “Just because you’ve got on cowboy boots doesn’t mean you run up and kick a bull.”
Pincoy inclined his head, moving towards the cave mouth. He had no idea what I was talking about, but obviously registered my tone. “Your candor is noted. But I cannot share in your amusement. These are my people. When they suffer, so do I.”