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 17: What’s Wrong With Mari?
Just as Meni gave a sign to Mari that all was okay and that she shouldn’t be scared by her surroundings, Mari’s eyes scanned the inside of the chamber. Finding herself encased in a small, torpedo-sized metal cylinder, Mari panicked and jerked her body towards the window, the only part where light was coming in. She hit her head on it. Mari grimaced in pain, proving her sensory system was certainly back in order.
“Get her out!” screamed Meni and J-Cap immediately rushed to open the chamber. Because no pressure differentials had been set, the door could be opened quickly. In the moments that Mari was still dizzy from her head bang, J-Cap had opened the chamber door. He and Cannavaro were already pulling out the stretcher.
J-Cap placed his hand over Mari’s chest to make sure she wouldn’t hit herself again on the window or on the metal walls. Once out, she was able to stand on her feet. She was very confused, and it took a while to explain to her what she had gone through.
They gave her air from another tank, and did their best to convince her to use it. She seemed to have difficulty in distinguishing between what was real and what was evidently a dream. When they asked her about her dreams, she seemed reluctant to share them. She kept on saying, “It was just a dream,” and the team did not want to push her on that.
She went to the toilet to get rid of all the excess water they had put into her and to take a shower. J-Cap prepared a light meal for her to replenish some strength. Then Mari went to lie down. Meni stayed with her while the others discussed about what to do with Mari.
It was unanimously agreed that she couldn’t stay on the island, because she might be prone to a reaction to chemicals released from the waters of the Aquarium. Besides, they didn’t have unlimited amounts of tanked air.
One possibility was to put her on one of the boats with two other team members, who would keep an eye on her and send it to the open waters, away from the island. But this would remove a vessel and two team members from the effort. Besides, further isolation was unlikely to help with her frail psychological state. She needed to be on dry land, in a pleasant environment, away from the island.
Cannavaro suggested calling Alexandros and asking him to take care of her for a few days. It was deemed unethical to withhold the truth of the situation from Alexandros, provided he would be willing to keep everything under wraps himself.
* * *
As an old-time friend of Alexandros, Cannavaro was picked to contact him. He would first tell him that Mari had suffered a mild anxiety episode and that she would benefit from being on Crete for a while. If Alexandros agreed, Cannavaro would escort Mari to Crete and come clean with Alexandros. He had the duration of the trip to figure out how to break the news to him gradually while assessing Alexandros’ willingness to be part of this clandestine saga.
Alexandros agreed to host Mari for a few days. He asked a student of his to help with finding a guest room for her and to keep an eye on her, involve her in their lab activities and make her feel comfortable. Mari had agreed to this and reassured Taro that she wanted this kept under wraps. She was just as interested to find out what was going on in those waters as she was before. She seemed to be getting out of her trance for good.
A few hours later, on Crete, Cannavaro and Mari met with Alexandros. Cannavaro had made it clear to both parties that there was to be no embarrassment involved; this was a professional difficulty, and there would be no awkwardness. Mari knew that a biochemical reaction must have caused her condition; her emotional background was solid. Genetic variations may have made her more sensitive to whatever was inducing this reaction. That might be the case with Frank too. They met at the port of Heraklion, shook hands quite matter-of-factly, and went to grab some food, courtesy of Alexandros.
“We’ll take good care of you, Mari,” Alexandros assured her. “We got you a pleasant little room and, as soon as you feel ready for it, my students will want to show you around the lab and the town. There is plenty to do here. The local music scene is fantastic. The musical tradition is centuries old, there are families that are basically musical institutions and the newer generations are fusing old Cretan traditions with contemporary jazz and rock. I think you will be impressed.”
“Thank you,” Mari replied. “Yes, I look forward to that. Maybe tomorrow I can meet your team. I would really like to be involved with your research while I am here. Anything I can do to help.”
* * *
Alexandros was as astute as marine biologists come and the best ones need to understand non-human behavior in order to carry out their research. Cannavaro could read Alexandros’ thoughts well enough to see that he was not yet convinced that he had heard the entire story. Clearly, to both of them, their discussion would have to continue later on. But for the moment, all three scientists made sure they had a very pleasant meal and that Mari started her recuperation on a positive note.
After the meal, Alexandros and Cannavaro dropped Mari to her room, gave her emergency phone numbers and set an appointment for the next day at Alexandros’ lab. Mari seemed to be doing fine. Then, the two went to have some drinks and go over the situation in more detail.
“She seems okay, right?” asked Cannavaro.
“She does. She doesn’t seem like she is fighting depression or anxiety.”
“Yes. I wanted you to see that she will be fine, first. Do you think the authorities need to be involved?”
“I wouldn’t know why. She is lucid and has not asked for that. Why would anyone call the authorities?”
“Well, Alexandros, the background story is a bit more complicated than we’ve presented it so far.”
“Obviously. Look, Alberto, what I know so far does not warrant the involvement of the authorities. I also think I know you well enough that if you have reason to keep them out, the reason is probably acceptable.”
Cannavaro proceeded to tell him everything that had happened, from receiving the picture of the Guardian to Mari’s episode, to their trip back to Crete.
Alexandros obviously found his account fascinating but he focused on finding explanations and answers and showed little excitement. “The closest example to Mari’s reaction in nature that I can think of is the emerald cockroach-wasp’s sting. Do you know about this? There is wasp that stings a cockroach much larger than itself. The sting basically takes away the roach’s survival instincts but doesn’t kill it.
“Then the wasp grabs an antenna and leads the roach to a den, where it lays an egg in the roach’s abdomen. It doesn’t want to kill the roach, because the wasp is too small to transport it anywhere. Also, the cockroach must stay alive for some days, otherwise the eggs don’t develop inside it.
“The wasp drugs the cockroach and leads it to a gruesome death in its den. Then it blocks the entrance of the den to protect the egg inside it from other animals.
“Anyway, that’s what the drug does: it takes away the self-preservation instincts and free will. You can do whatever you want to the victim, push it around like a zombie.”
Cannavaro nodded but added a caution. “I don’t know what was released from the waters. We did keep some samples of the air. If whatever was released is stable enough, we may be able to analyze its chemistry. You want to come, right?”
“Yeah, sure,” said Alexandros. “Sure. Mari will be fine, here. I got my whole team keeping an eye on her. Anyway, we are not far away from you.”
“Okay, let’s go back in the morning.”
“Yes, I will bring my Zodiac. I will follow you back. And by the way, thanks for telling me the whole thing.”
“Alexandros, please bring one of your deep-water camera systems. We want to sink it into the lake. It’s a suicide mission; you won’t see it again. But we will all chip in and get you a new one, okay? We need to have a visual from within the lake. We also need some air tanks.”
* * *
The next day, with Mari in safe hands and good spirits, Cannavaro and Alexandros took off from Heraklion port towards Dioptra. Cannavaro led the way, and Alexandros continued thinking about possible explanations of what was happening on Dioptra. He scanned with his mind all the examples of behavior-modifying toxins he knew from biology.
He thought about Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, the parasitic fungus that infects ants and changes their behavior so that they optimize the chances for the development of the fungus. The infected ants that normally live high up in the canopies move to the lower parts of the trees, where the temperature and humidity are perfect for the developing fungus.
The ants find a leaf close the ground and bite hard into a leaf vein at noon. A few hours later, the ants die as the fungus starts developing out of them over the next few weeks. The bite doesn’t let go although they are dead.
How would behavior-altering signals be interpreted by the complex human nervous system? Wouldn’t there be infinite layers of nuanced changes before a gross and obvious alteration happened? Mari seemed to get well as soon as she was removed from the environment of the Aquarium. That meant the insult was likely a chemical or biochemical factor and not an infection by a parasite.
Alexandros was going straight to the source of this factor. But none of the others seemed to be affected. Frank may have been, but he seemed to have had serious issues beforehand. Maybe Mari had a propensity. People differ greatly in their susceptibility to the same chemical. Anyway, this was a big deal, and he had to be there.
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma