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 22: What Lurks in the Deep?
The team reached the spot above L’Atalante. The boat stopped, and the bubble came up to the surface. J-Cap hooked the bubble to the boat and opened its hatch. He grabbed Nannion, who got a bit scared with all that water underneath her and clenched onto J-Cap’s arm while he brought her aboard. She let out a little meow of complaint as she was released onto a comfortable chair. She looked towards Meni, who was still in the bubble.
“Go down,” Meni told the sharks as she pointed downwards, towards their new lake. “Go!” Taro brought her his strongest flashlight and she pointed it downwards. That seemed to work. The sharks started swimming vertically downwards until they disappeared from sight.
Meni came out of the bubble and was helped aboard.
“You did well, Meni,” Taro said. “You, too, Nannion. Now we wait for a while.
“Are we all okay?” Hanson asked.
Frank was the first to respond. “I am.”
Everyone looked at Frank, inviting him to continue his thought.
“It’s a driving force, isn’t it? I mean, trying to escape depression like that will make you do things, right? I recognize my predisposition, but still, this thing got the best of many of us.”
Alexandros nodded. “It sure did, Frank. You were not alone in this.”
Frank: “No, I wasn’t. It got me well, though, didn’t it?” Frank thought about what he had just said. “Maybe it didn’t ‘get me’. Maybe it didn’t set out to do any of this. As far as we know, it is a victim of the same thing it produces.”
J-Cap agreed. “It is a victim, Frank. You saw the jellyfish. They died trying to escape, just as the Guardian probably did. The jellyfish are most likely a part of this organism.”
Hanson continued. “If we sequence the DNA of the lake organism and it is the same as the DNA of the jellyfish, then J-Cap will be right.”
Fawkes had a reservation. “If they are different, then is J-Cap wrong?”
Alexandros thought that involving the injured Cannavaro to take part in a vivid philosophical conversation would take his mind off his physical pain. “Cannavaro, is genetic identity essential to identity in general?”
“Nope.” Cannavaro was in pain. That was the most guttural “nope” they had heard. They all realized the plan of coaxing his participation would probably lead to more, rather than less, physical pain for their colleague.
But Cannavaro continued. “Viral DNA has incorporated itself into our genome for millennia. A large part of our genome is not unique, not even human. Conversely, identical twins have essentially the same DNA but are not the same person. Don’t over-value DNA.”
Meni said, “So this animal in the lake, whether it is a part — the main part, perhaps — of this larger organism... The jellyfish, too... DNA sequencing would not be enough to tell us?”
Alexandros mused, “I suppose not. If you define biological identity by DNA sequence identity, then we will get the answer. Motile colonial organisms like the one Hawkes and Hanson encountered may have identical DNA sequences.
“But I guess you could exchange some individual components between two different organisms of the same species and they should go on living normally, despite being a mixed DNA population, now.
“In this case, does the DNA sequence really matter? Or, at least, does it matter enough to define who is a part of the same organism and who isn’t?”
Cannavaro was intrigued by the train of thought. “Where do we draw the line separating a single organism from a community of distinct ones? We can take blood stem cells from you and transplant them to another person whose blood stem cells we destroyed to free him from his leukemia. Within a few weeks, all his blood cells will be derived from yours. That happens all the time; that’s what bone marrow transplantation is. The new cells will be genetically identical to yours, not his.
“Surely, these are not part of you, anymore, right? They don’t work for you, they don’t serve you, they don’t interact with you, they don’t influence you and you don’t influence them, and they will not feel the consequences of anything that may happen to you. Yet, they have your DNA, not their new host’s.”
Fawkes saw a conclusion. “Then, can the sharks, which I certainly expect to be genetically distinct from the lake organism, be part of that organism?”
Cannavaro spoke again, with some distress obvious in his voice. “I don’t know that the sharks qualify. They certainly felt the consequences of the organism, but maybe just as a prey feels the consequences of the needs and urges of their predator. Then again, we don’t know anything about how they developed or whether what they became was affected by their coexistence.”
Meni saw a parallel. “Parasitism and symbiosis? Parasites are intricately linked to their hosts, but they are not the same organism as their host. Symbionts the same. DNA identity may have to be the distinguishing factor.”
“A very limiting one,” Frank objected.
Alexandros asked, “Do you propose a more adequate one, Frank?”
Frank shrugged. “No. That one may have to do, for now.”
“If this thing had happened in open water,” Meni said, “the sharks would have simply moved away from the lake and the jellyfish. They would not have been in danger of injury and death.”
J-Cap sighed. “I think you will all be working on the biology of this lake for a long time before you work out the philosophy behind it.”
Meni was the first to move the discussion to biological issues. “Do you think it has eyes? The jellyfish seem to.”
“Like the box jellyfish, right?” Hanson asked. “Scary little critters. They are small enough to go through fine netting, and yet they can kill you with one touch. And they have eyes, on top, to avoid obstacles...”
Taro summed things up. “We will have to tell authorities about this. Someone is going to decide to take a swim in the Aquarium at some point. It could be dangerous.
“Also, we should find out what that thing is at the bottom. As far as we can tell, these jellyfish don’t live outside of the lake for long. Let’s optimistically assume that, for now, the organism is contained.
“But it is staying alive for some time, because it takes quite a while to reach the surface. Some jellyfish stay alive — even if only barely — all the way to the surface. What if, in several generations, one escapes and contaminates the open sea?”
Alexandros nodded. “Yes, we should let the authorities know, of course. We will tell them about the lake organism, definitely. What about the sharks?”
“That is a tough question,” Frank said. “I don’t want these sharks in a lab. I still hope they find their new lake and like it.”
It was jointly and unanimously decided that, when the sharks would be left to their own devices and fate, the Team would notify the authorities. That meant the Greek authorities and the international marine biology societies that would be able to conduct a study on Dioptra and safely determine the nature of the life form in the lake. The team would tell them of the sharks but would keep to themselves the location of their release.
Meni spent a couple of minutes thinking about this joint decision. “It won’t work... You don’t think it will be completely obvious to all marine biologists that we would have tried to lead the sharks to a similar brine lake? Even if we hadn’t, the sharks would have found it themselves. We cannot hide the sharks, unless they actually decide to live away from a lake.”
Alexandros agreed. “She is right. But we will talk to marine biologists. If they were here now, they would do exactly what we have done. We will have to rely on them to think as we do. That is not a stretch. We personally know many of them.”
Taro added, “We may have to do this. We can make sure that enough scientists know of this so that no loose cannon decides to do something stupid.
“I am the keynote speaker at a conference in Monaco next month. I get to talk in front of several hundred biologists. Maybe I will change my subject and tell our story. You should all be there. There will be resources to study this thing.”
Cannavaro said, “Meni, maybe you will get to work on those jellyfish eyes. That would be a terrific project.”
“If we take the assignment,” Taro said, “you are obviously all invited team members. Distinguished team members.”
All agreed and extended the invitation to Mari, by telephone. Together they drafted the thirty-minute talk that Taro would deliver as the keynote speaker at the Oceanographic Museum in Monaco.
* * *
While the scientists were busy emitting conjectures and making plans, they were unaware of being watched and overheard. Lying in comfort on her chair, framed between the setting sun and rising moon, Nannion gazed upon her human companions. An ancient priest five millennia removed would have prostrated himself before her, seeing in her an image of the goddess Bast, keeper of the eye of Horus.
A hand gently rubbed the back of her head. She purred, without changing her elegant stance. What a light touch it had, more graceful even than Meni’s. Behind the cover of faux-leather seats and marine equipment, she turned her head and locked eyes with the little humanoid.
These humans are curious but cautious, Nannion thought, not unlike myself.
The figure smiled enigmatically and, touching his head companionably to Nannion’s, it transmitted a reply from the souls in the deep. Indeed they are, and that is reassuring. But they are many, and we are one. We can well afford to wait. For now.
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma