by Elous Telma
On a secluded Greek island in the 1950s, an enormous abandoned mine is filled with sea water for a major international experiment in marine biology. It is intended to study natural selection and, perhaps, evolution in a new aquatic ecosystem. However, the experiment and the island are eventually abandoned.
Decades later, a sailor’s photograph of the corpse of a large shark prompts a team of biologists to visit the island. The team discovers unique environments, including an underwater brine lake. The life forms act in ways that affect the fauna on the island as well as themselves.
The new ecosystem is dangerous. How to cope with it? The biologists will need some form of interspecies communication with the sea life and even with a cat that has been stranded on the island. It’s simple in theory...
Chapter 12: Frank and Fish
Frank was still in a deep trance, changing location seemingly at will. He saw himself back in Greece and went to the tiny wooden port where he used to swim with dolphins. But he couldn’t find the dolphins. He swam around and he got in deeper waters but there was no sign of them.
He dived and moved like a dolphin with his feet in unison, he moved calmly, he splashed the waters, but nothing brought them back. He made a bubble at the sea floor and stayed there for most of the night.
In the early morning, the dolphins reappeared. They seemed startled but their curiosity got the best of them. They were going around the bubble in circles as Frank was spinning around, nice and dry, following them. He put his arm into the water and touched one of them for the first time.
They all stopped and looked at him through the bubble. He created a tube of water through the middle of the bubble and, eventually, one of the dolphins decided to swim through it, somewhat hesitantly. Its dorsal fin protruded into the air-filled part of the structure, and that made it feel weird, being well below the water surface.
After a while they left, and Frank packed his stuff and returned home. He could live in one of these bubbles. But it would have to be deep enough to avoid detection in the busy Greek coastal waters. He planned his trip to the deepest waters, outside Pylos in the Peloponnese peninsula.
Waters up to five and a half kilometers deep are home to Mediterranean sperm whales and their prey, deep-sea squid. Frank took an inflatable vessel and packed it with everything he needed to stay underwater for a few days. Food, water, batteries, LED lights, a couple of antique-looking floor lights, books, a mattress, a sleeping bag, a collapsible table and chair, and a GPS device.
At night, he set off from a remote bay. When he reached the right spot, he sunk himself with the boat using his bubble-building technique. He started his descent slowly, making sure there would be no accidents. But he had control over these powers, and he sped up his motion; after all, he had a long way to go.
Soon, all was pitch black, and he regularly used a strong flashlight to make sure he wouldn’t slam onto the bottom. He couldn’t calculate how far he had gone; he made several stops, more frequently as he neared the sea floor. During these stops, he put on warmer clothes, as he would eventually reach an environment with temperatures as cold as a refrigerator. He had tested his abilities with the water, but it was such a remote and dark place that he felt somewhat uneasy. Setting base at the bottom would improve things.
He spent the last kilometer or so looking downwards as the boat descended. Eventually, he saw the bottom and immediately stopped the boat. He was over a fairly flat, rocky surface that seemed quite safe for the inflatable vessel. He touched down and all seemed safe.
The first thing he did was to set up the floor lights and connect them to large batteries that should handle their energy needs for three days at least, running continuously. The light shone into the water and created the most beautiful patterns. At some angles, the lights were very reflective but, at others, he could easily see into the water for several meters. He set up the table and chair between the lamps and placed the books onto the table. The quarters had been set.
The effects of the floor lamps were amazing, but Frank switched them off. As daunting as the darkness was, he thought he might get his eyes accustomed enough to the dark to catch some bioluminescence. It took a while for his eyes to adapt, but then he thought he could see something. Of course, he didn’t know how much bioluminescence there could be at such depths, if any. He couldn’t make much out, not convincingly, anyway.
He took a small flashlight and placed it facing towards the water. Reckoning that life down there might be attracted to a light source, he touched the flashlight to the water wall. He closed his eyes to preserve his darkness adaptation and turned on the light. Then he turned his head away.
He switched the torchlight off and started staring outwards. He hoped to see something, but the thought of peering into abyssal waters was so awe-inspiring that it made up for the lack of obvious structures and organisms. He remained staring for almost an hour, finally finding some peace of mind.
He closed his eyes again and found his way to the flashlight on the floor. He turned it on again with his eyes closed, then switched it off and opened his eyes. He suspected he would see life in front of him. And there it was: a small cookiecutter shark, less than a foot in length and naturally bioluminescent, two kilometers deeper than its normal depth.
It did not respond. It kept swimming around, evidently excited by its find. Frank moved as close to it as he could. He could feel the cold diffusing from the water onto his face, but he was well prepared, wearing thick clothes and a warm hat. “Cookiecutter.”
There was no light coming from Frank’s bubble to the little fish, and it was oblivious to his presence. “Are you alone down here?”
Cookiecutter stood still and looked towards Frank. Maybe he saw him, maybe he sensed his electrical field. Being a dogfish, it is able to sense electricity. In reality, though, its big, photosensitive eyes had registered a green bioluminescence that was reflecting off Frank’s face before Frank’s inadequate human eyes could see its source: an oversized hatchetfish-like creature was approaching, emanating green lights from almost all over its body.
The biology didn’t make much sense. The hatchetfish looked too much like a standard hatchetfish. Why would it be so large? This one was a good three meters in length. Why did it emit bioluminescence at these depths? And why green?
Frank’s consciousness was sounding off an alarm. Just as he had found some sort of peace or at least a somewhat pleasant preoccupation, he realized that a perfectly semi-circular dome could attract unwanted attention from the sonars of military submarines.
He experimented with shapes, changing it to a generic stealth configuration that appeared like one meter — wide panels facing random directions. He had no idea how effective they might be, but he thought they would look great with the light from the lamps. He switched them on and they did look great. He smiled.
Then he changed the shape to that of a mountain peak, and it looked even more impressive. He could still see the fish, barely able to see its green bioluminescence through the LED lighting.
He turned the lights off again and walked toward the fish, which was fully green now in all its bioluminescent glory. His submarine paranoia quelled by his architectural improvisations, he could focus on his more biological worries.
But the gigantic green fish was a problem to him. It shouldn’t be there. His imagination should have followed some rules, at least, some biology rules. Where did Cookiecutter go? And why was it so deep?
At least its bioluminescence was blue, which made sense, just not at these depths. It is a useful defense much closer to the surface when its weak blue bioluminescence makes it look like a dark blue sky to predators below it. These two fish had to be explained somehow.
But the cookiecutter was nowhere to be seen, and the hatchetfish was just floating there, looking at Frank and doing nothing. Suddenly its whole body twitched violently — fast action from a slow-looking fish. Its bioluminescence in the middle section of its body stopped. At least that is what Frank thought. But he realized that it wasn’t the case. It was bleeding from its mid-section, and the blood blocked the green light from reaching Frank’s eyes.
Then the cookiecutter appeared by its flank, chewing a piece of hatchetfish. That’s what cookiecutters do — they take chunks of flesh off living animals — fish, sharks, whales. They can damage submarine insulation material as well. They don’t usually kill their prey, but they do scar it and possibly debilitate it for good.
These two had to go. None of this was pleasant or relaxing. Frank packed the boat and took the bubble up. His mind had put all this work into creating an effective escape and now he had to abandon it because he couldn’t do it properly, respecting some basic marine biology rules which seemed so important to his subconscious.
He didn’t care about the physics of the whole thing, but the ichthyology was all screwy. Now he had to move vertically five and a half kilometers through the ocean. Dammit, there was no hope, this way. At least the spectacle of the ascent was quite remarkable. He lay down on the boat, facing upwards. A tiny speck of light became larger and larger above him until he finally reached the surface. He estimated his speed at around sixty kilometers an hour as it took him a bit over five minutes for the trip.
* * *
In the meantime, Meni and Mari had kept on walking towards the center. Meni, choosing to make small talk with her gullible accomplice, commented that it impressed her how their only cover was distance.
“And the darkness,” added Mari.
“OK, fine,” said Meni, “But we’re not behind a tree or anything.” The girls made use of some light-hearted chit-chat as they realized they were over a decades-old transparent pathway approaching the center of the deepest man-made hole, and they couldn’t even see the shore from where they were.
* * *
If you looked at Frank’s face, you would think he were awake. But for all practical purposes he was in a trance that was getting deeper and deeper. Aphasia had taken over; he wouldn’t have been able to speak a word. His thoughts drifted where they willed, and he now had no control over them.
He saw small fish living at the bottom of the hole, in the high pressures of the sea floor. They looked out of place, almost like the goldfish people keep in their houses. One decided to climb upwards, towards the surface, where the explosion hole was. It was an admirable feat for a tiny fish. A great spirit compensated for its small size, made to look even smaller in the vast environment of the hole. It kept swimming upwards and as it did, the pressure differential became unbearable.
Some fish have an air pocket inside them, which gives them the correct buoyancy for the depth they live in. If you pull them up, the bladder expands, causing damage, and it may even burst. But the small fish kept swimming upwards despite its agony.
Frank’s face became contorted; his mind wouldn’t let him escape this awkward, uncomfortable, sad story. His face was wet with sweat and tears. His clenched fists and popping neck veins could not slow down this little fish’s ascent. This little guy had covered some distance — a tremendous amount compared to his size. The feat was bringing him closer and closer to blowing himself up. Frank pictured himself in the waters, reaching out to the fish to help. But bringing it up would simply expedite its torturous death.
He knew, though, that divers bring syringe needles with them and use them to prick a hole into the fishes’ stomachs and release the air in their buoyancy organ. He pricked the fish; a couple of tiny air bubbles came out into the sea, which gave the fish some more distance to go.
That was all Frank could do. He swam away, opting to never know the fate of this courageous little fish. He was allowed that much thought control.
Frank wished it the best and fell into a deeper depression; his fists still clenched, his face still distorted, having no control at all over his horrible feelings. In his trance, he swam towards the explosion hole. There, he saw a small, slim humanoid creature using its skinny arms to dig into the sides of the Aquarium wall, as if trying to enlarge the explosion hole.
Frank’s creations could never have existed outside his imagination. They were all tortured and terribly sad. This new creature, the skinny, barely humanoid little thing, was now frantically digging into the Aquarium wall, striving to provide more space for its fellow creatures in the Aquarium. Its soft, thin arms were tackling the walls of an abandoned diamond mine.
Unlike what he knew of the Aquarium, having observed it from above the surface, this imaginary body of water was well lit all the way to the bottom, giving Frank, in his confused state, the feeling that the waters were not deeper than a few meters. Frank didn’t have to blink.
The flowing tears hydrated his bloodshot eyes well enough while they were wide open and motionless. He realized, in his state, that he, too, was striving for more space. That was why he had bought a yacht and taken it to the open seas and oceans. He, too, was horrified by confinement.
In the Aquarium, he let himself sink downwards to avoid this new image of sorrow. He passed several levels of the spiral road, the one that once was the roadway for huge trucks carrying earth kilometers toward the top.
At the edge of the road, halfway to the bottom, he saw a large shark resting, with its mouth opening to breathe in water. It looked like a Greenland shark, an ancient-looking beast with a soft body kept in place by the water pressure around it. The shark leaned over the edge of the road for a view of the abyss beyond the spiral.
The shark saw what people had built half a century ago. And what they had left behind. This had not been a success story, least of all for the inhabitants left behind to escape by themselves. If sharks can feel irony, this one did. It kept looking at the bottom, towards the center of the pit. Frank kept looking at it, as he was sinking by towards the Aquarium bed.
Then the tireless little humanoid appeared next to the shark, having apparently sunk down after Frank. The little creature started digging the side of the wall next to the Aquarium, giving away its naivety and panic. The shark calmly turned around to watch it digging.
In real life, Frank was overtaken by an alarming sadness. Clearly, his inability to move saved his life as any person under such emotional distress would have taken his own life to escape it. In his mind, Frank had now reached the Aquarium bed. His feet were touching the fine sand at the bottom. Frank in the water looked a bit calmer than Frank in the boat, but his mental state was the same, ready to give everything up. Frank saw a deep sea angler fish watching him from the height of his head. He walked a bit, and the feeling of soft, fine sand under his feet was somewhat comforting. He didn’t notice the humanoid that had also landed on the sand.
The humanoid didn’t seem so distressed now. In fact, it appeared quite calm. It approached Frank and signaled to him with both hands to follow him. It walked towards what appeared to be a lake with the most clear and inviting waters, just twenty meters away. It was weird, as they were supposedly already under water. But such was Frank’s love of water that his mind kept creating new marine environments.
Frank’s new acquaintance looked very different now, simply because its panic and distress had been replaced by an expression of composure and focus. The signs of trouble had gone away. It stood by the lake shore and once again signaled to Frank to approach. Frank responded and walked towards it. In the real world, Frank’s eyes were no longer crying, but they were still red. And open.
By the lake shore, Frank leaned towards the lake’s surface. The humanoid scooped a handful of lake water. It calmly put its hand into the brine lake and shoveled it out. As the lake water mixed with the sea-quality water of the Aquarium, a beautiful blurry image, a halocline, developed. Frank watched the two kinds of water mix and slowly combine and make the halocline disappear.
He then turned to the humanoid to find it immersed, waist-deep, in the lake, close to its shore, calmly looking at Frank. He entered the lake, waist-deep as well, and stood still, half in the lake waters and half in the Aquarium waters, just like his humanoid mentor. He finally calmed down.
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma