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Back on the boat I wait another twenty-five minutes before the first divers appear. It’s the Spanish couple again, followed by Genevieve and Eddie. Bill, once again, has elected to stay down by himself and I can see that Eddie is annoyed. We all shower off on the back of the boat and hang our dive skins and wet suits out to dry. By the time we’re finished Bill is climbing up the ladder. Eddie helps him to his seat and I can see him whispering something to him. Judging by Bill’s face, I’m assuming it’s a reprimand.
Once we’ve rinsed off we return to our cabins and get dressed for dinner. Genevieve and I both put on jeans, which feels terrific after a day spent in bathing suits. “So what did you guys find down there?” I ask.
She smiles. “Just wait,” she says. “You’re not going to believe it.”
In the main cabin, Eddie already has the table set and Pablo is working on a sailor’s version of paella with shrimp, blue crab, clams, and mussels. Once he’s finished setting the table, Eddie slams a handle of Sailor Jerry’s in the middle of it. “This feels like a rum night,” he says. We start with rum and cokes and already have a nice buzz going when it’s time to eat. On land, the paella would be merely passable, but out here it is a meal fit for a king. By the time we finish there is no more coke but still some rum, so we drink it straight, except for Bill who waves it off with a conciliatory smile. Nobody bothers to clear off the table; by now we’re listening to Eddie describe what it was they found, particularly Pablo and I, who didn’t get to see it first hand.
“I thought it was a piece of coral at first. Even when I was right on top of it — I couldn’t think of anything else it could be, and, in fact, I’m still kind of stumped on that score. But it wasn’t like any type of coral I’d ever seen before, and I knew it wasn’t there on the first dive. It was red and grainy, bits and pieces of it detaching in the current, and what’s more, I could see that the mass itself wasn’t attached to anything. It shifted back and forth on the sea floor. When I investigated its bottom side I noticed a strange film covering it, transparent as far as I could tell, although whenever the thing shifted it would glimmer just a little in the light.” He stares as if waiting for Pablo and me to draw our own conclusions. I can’t tell whether or not Pablo has solved it, but with this much rum in me I’m in no mood to play detective.
“And?” I say.
“It was skin,” he says. “Like a fish’s, although the only fish I’ve ever heard of with skin like that live only in deep water.”
“So it was a fish?”
“No, just a piece of one.”
I blink and look at the others to see how they are taking this information. “And where was the rest of it?”
He shrugs. “A better question is what was it to begin with, and how did it get here? All of the fish I know that have skin similar to that live at such depths they literally can’t ascend because the lack of pressure would kill them. They’re all a lot smaller too than whatever this thing is.”
“Well, it doesn’t seem like it’s survived exactly either.”
“No, but it would have died long before making it to this depth. A hundred feet is nothing. There are places not too far from here that are seven miles deep. That’s over thirty-five thousand feet. You can feel in your ears the pressure at one hundred; can you imagine what it must be like at that depth? Most biologists doubt life is capable of existing there. We know more about the moon…hell, we know more about nearly every planet in our solar system than we do about the bottom of the ocean.”
There are several beats of silence before Genevieve says, “The pool?”
Eddie nods. “Gotta think they’re related, although who knows, really? We’re so far beyond anything currently known about the ocean at this point. I’ve gotta tell you though, personally, I’m not ready to call it in.”
“Me neither,” Bill chimes.
The rest of us look around at one another and nod uncertainly.
“What do you want to do, then?” Genevieve asks.
“Well, I thought I’d put it to you guys. You’re the paying customers, after all. We can either call it in tomorrow, wait for the scientists to arrive, then head out to continue our diving elsewhere, or we can stay here and keep going down until we feel satisfied we’ve seen everything there is to see with our limited means, then call in the fuzz. It’s up to you.”
Bill leans forward. “Well, you all know my vote. I’m old and most reefs at this point are just configurations of things I’ve seen elsewhere.”
“Shall we put it to a vote, then?” Eddie asks, studying each of our faces.
“All in favor of staying?”
Slowly, we all raise our hands, Bill last, a satisfied smirk on his face.
“Well that settles it. We’ll go down again tomorrow morning.”
It’s mine and Genevieve’s turn to clear away the dishes, so we do that, rinsing them off in the sink and leaving them there for Pablo to finish up in the morning. Suddenly there is a dull thud and the floor beneath us vibrates, as though from impact.
“What was that?” Genevieve asks.
Several seconds go by, all of our senses tuned to our surroundings, unconsciously trying to perceive whether or not we are sinking. Then it happens again: a dull pounding that sounds like it’s coming from beneath us, something throwing itself against the hull of the boat. We grasp at the handrails and pull ourselves up on deck. The others are all gathered at the port bow.
“What’s going on?” I call out to them. Bill gestures with his head for us to join them. Slowly, and with the sounds continuing beneath us, we move to the railing and are shocked to see the water churning. But no: it’s not the water that’s moving — something beneath it. What I first took for movement appears to be shadows, huge ones, shifting back and forth beneath the surface. Another muted sound of impact and suddenly it disappears.
“What in the hell…?”
“You wondered how that piece of meat got down there,” Bill says with a smile. “I’m thinking there’s going to be a whole lot more tomorrow.”
I move to the other side where Eddie is. “What’s happening?” I whisper.
“Evan, I have no fucking idea. You want to see something really weird: look over there, roughly where the pool is beneath the water, and wait for another one of those explosions. Wait for it…There! You see it?”
Sure enough, there is a dull flash of neon in the general vicinity of the pool that quickly diminishes into darkness.
I am speechless.
After several minutes the “explosions” become further apart. As they do, the brief flashes of color cease to be so brief. Color appears to bleed beneath the surface of the water: aqua, neon, as well as colors I don’t believe I’ve ever seen before, all phosphorescent and glowing.
“You know,” Eddie says quietly, without taking his eyes away, “most deep sea marine life still have eyes just like us, though the sun doesn’t reach down that far. In order to see many creatures have evolved to create their own light inside of their bodies.”
Bill turns. “Seeing ain’t the only thing they use it for.”
This seems to jolt Eddie from his reverie. “No. No, it isn’t.”
“Tell ‘em what else they use it for.”
Eddie clears his throat. “Some deep water fish use the light they make as lures, primitive forms of hypnotism to draw other organisms close. It’s a tool for hunting.”
This information snaps us all back to attention.
“You don’t think…” Genevieve begins.
“No, I don’t think. But there’s not a whole lot we can do about it at this point. My suggestion is that we all retire to our cabins, try to get a good night’s rest, and we’ll see what we can find out in the morning.”
Genevieve looks to me and I nod, and we turn to go to bed. The Spanish couple does the same, and Eddie, and Pablo; all except for Bill, who remains still against the railing, watching, dreaming, long after we’ve disappeared below deck.
Genevieve and I lie awake in bed. Not long after, the dull explosions start again, reverberating against the hull. “What do you think it is?” she asks.
“Eddie seems to know.”
“Yeah, but how do you think they got here? What is the pool?”
“I don’t know, babe. Some kind of portal, I should think.”
“But where did it come from? Who put it there?”
I have no answers for her.
“Do you think it works in reverse, too?”
At this I turn to her in the dark, attempt to study her features through the shadow, but the darkness is implacable. “Not sure it’s worth finding out,” I say.
She takes a minute to respond. “No, I suppose not. Honeymoon isn’t the time to be exploring new worlds. Enough is happening in this one.” She cuddles up against me, holding me across my chest.
Yes, I think. So much is happening, and I hold her tight as well, allowing my eyelids to become heavy, lulled to sleep by the pulsing sound of another world crying out below.
The next morning we wake well rested. I nearly leap out of bed, I’m so energetic. I stand naked in the middle of our cabin, listening. The explosions, it seems, have stopped.
“Are you going to dive with us today?” Genevieve asks, sitting up and rubbing sleep from her eyes.
“I think I will,” I say. “Yes, today I’m feeling pretty good.”
On deck everyone is already zipping up their wetsuits.
“You guys sleep well?” Eddie asks cheerfully.
“Yeah, we really did.”
Eddie also seems well rested, as does Pablo, and the Spanish couple. The only one who doesn’t is Bill. His eyes are heavy and blood shot, his face unshaven. No one knows how late he stayed up watching the water because he won’t talk to anyone. He keeps to himself, checking the valves on his tank, his regulator, checking his dive computer.
“Alright,” Eddie says, suited up and standing in the middle of the deck. “I feel the need to disclaim what we’re doing here beforehand. We’re diving now out of curiosity, out of a desire to know exactly what it was we saw last night. There’s no telling what we’ll find down there. The silence suggests that whatever might have been a threat last night is a threat no longer, although I want to stress the fact that we can’t know for sure. If you go down with us you’re accepting that fact, the risk and the possible reward. Agreed?”
We all nod our heads.
“Out loud, please.”
Pablo translates for the Spanish couple. “Si,” they say together.
“Alright then, follow me.” He turns and, after issuing a few instructions to Pablo, pulls his mask down and places his regulator inside his mouth, begins waddling toward the back of the boat. We all do the same, following after him.
It’s a beautiful day for diving: not a cloud in the sky and, compared to the last few days, the sea is relatively calm. Visibility should be excellent.
Behind Eddie is the Spanish couple, followed by Bill, followed at last by Genevieve and me. Eddie stands at the edge for several moments staring at the water before taking a giant stride and tumbling into the ocean. We wait for him to resurface and to give us a report of what’s beneath him. After putting his face in the water and looking around he waves us in. One by one, we all stride out. It feels good to be in my scuba gear again. I breathe deeply into my regulator in order to test it, to convince myself that what happened last time will not happen again. But these assurances aren’t necessary — I know that this time it will all be fine.
I’m the last into the water and with a full wet suit on it feels fantastic, the perfect temperature. I feel the way it floods my BCD, seeps into my wetsuit, and refreshes my skin. Once we’re all in the water Pablo stands at the end of the boat and brings his right hand to his head, we all do the same then turn to Eddie, who nods, and we each press the release valve on our BCDs and slowly begin to descend.
As soon as we’re under we can see we’ve entered a landscape of gore. The reef beneath us, it seems, has disappeared, replaced by humongous piles of fish meat which, in their own way, resemble coral in the formations they make. Hovering above it is a faint aura of red, tiny bits of flesh the current has disengaged. The sun catches the bits of skin and the whole thing sparkles like crystal.
I look at Genevieve and signal to ask whether she is okay. She nods her head, although I can see her eyes are red.
The others descend straight away, although I stay with Genevieve while she gradually makes her way down, desperately trying to equalize so that she won’t miss anything. Visibility is so good though we can see nearly everything from where we are, clear to the other side of the reef where, I can see, the pool remains, shimmering.
The others wait at the bottom until we’ve descended, then set out in a line behind Eddie. Genevieve and I are in back although we can see Bill up ahead nearly on top of Eddie, too polite to pass him but too eager to hang back any further. We swim over the top of the reef, examining the piles of meat for signs of life, or at least a piece of flesh that can help identify the creatures. There are none though. There aren’t even any fish, predatory or otherwise, nibbling at it.
This last bit, I realize, is concerning. We’re basically swimming over a mountain of chum, and the scent should be drawing in predators from miles around. The fact that it’s not is indicative of something, although I’m not sure what. Whatever the threat is that keeps them away surely doesn’t appear to be living.
At one point I reach out and touch a piece of fish. I’m surprised by how delicate it is. It feels like a half-inflated balloon, not solid like you would expect meat to be. It seems somehow empty inside.
After investigating the reef for fifteen minutes, Eddie leads us back to the pool. What we’re supposed to discover here, I have no idea. We’ve learned already that we cannot touch it, whatever we drop inside of it simply disappears, seeming to be pulled in. Are we just going to wait and see if anything comes out? Honestly, I don’t care, because it’s my first time seeing the thing up close and it is beautiful — bigger and more brilliant than it appeared from the surface. Staring into it, I lose track of what the others are doing. The way it shimmers…it’s like glass or liquid silver, maybe. I don’t know how long it has been when I’m finally able to tear my eyes away, but when I look up I see that the others are all doing the same thing. They are all gathered in a circle around the pool, weightless, floating in a single position and staring down into it, like a coven of witches around a pentagram, mindless, hypnotized.
I realize then that something is wrong. I can tell, ironically, by how natural this all feels. I test myself by trying to make myself move, just a little, just a couple of kicks upward, but I cannot. My limbs feel heavy and rigid, as though they are filled with cement, and my eyes have refocused now on the pool, vast and beautiful, like a giant tear-filled eye. I’m locked in a battle with myself. I must move. I must warn the others. It’s not right, whatever this thing is. It is not right for it to be so beautiful, so captivating. The more I struggle internally, the more I can feel it in relation to me, as though the eye is turning now in my direction, focusing on me specifically and compelling me to be still. Suddenly it no longer seems beautiful. I am able to see it for the malevolent thing that it is, its predatory nature. What it wants to do with us, I have no idea. Is this some kind of living organism? Is it hunting us for nourishment, or something more sinister than that; something fundamentally more wrong? Either way, one thing seems certain to me: we are prey.
I am able to tear my eyes away for a moment and I look up toward the surface, which, from this depth, looks like a solid plane of light, like the floor of heaven, which would of course make this hell. With a Herculean effort I’m able to kick one leg free, and the rest of my body follows naturally. I turn to Genevieve and grab her by the bicep. At first she doesn’t respond, but I knock against her mask with my fist and this gets her attention. The eyes she turns toward me bear the confused, panicky expression of a child. Something is wrong, she realizes, just not what or how she should handle it. I motion toward the surface, and this seems to frighten her more. Somehow I must communicate what I know. I point at the pool and then draw a line across my throat. When she still seems confused, I point to it again and make the sign for a shark, my hand shaped like a fin atop my forehead. At last she seems to understand. I can see she cannot move though. I grab her beneath her arms and begin to pull her upwards until at last her limbs are able to move themselves.
I’m about to swim straight for the surface when Genevieve grabs me by the fin and points to the others, still floating in stasis around the pool. She reaches for Eddie and tries to get his attention, but it’s as if he is asleep. She shakes him by the shoulders and I help, but there is no response. Finally, I reach up to his air tank and turn off the valve. A couple of seconds pass and his consciousness returns to him and he begins to thrash. I turn his air back on and he turns to me, looking furious. I interrupt his mad gesticulations to signal what I have just communicated to Genevieve:
At first he too looks confused. I can tell by the way his eyes shift back and forth, that he believes me. He makes a circle with his hand, signaling that we should round up the rest of them. He swims to Escobar and Genevieve goes to Maria. They try shaking them at first but eventually resort to turning off their air for a moment.
I swim over to Bill.
I can tell immediately that he is not like the others. Through his mask, his eyes are not vacant in the same way theirs were. They are heavy and bloodshot and stare into the pool with a kind of fevered intensity the others were not capable of. I try shaking his shoulders, although immediately his arm shoots up between us and knocks me away from him. I try to signal to him what I signaled to the others, that he is in danger. But he’s not looking at me. His attention is absorbed by the teary eye in front of him. I look toward the others and they are fifteen feet above me now, watching, waiting for me. I wave them on. They hesitate, Genevieve, most of all, but the pool and the gore, the fact that there are no fish around — they’re frightened. The silence no longer communicates safety, but an impending something that they do not wish to stick around for.
When I can see them all ascending I turn back to Bill and, swimming over top of him, turn off his air. Immediately he turns, begins to thrash, tries to reach behind him and turn it back on himself, but he cannot reach it. He grabs his dive knife from his calf and begins to slash it in my direction. I swim upwards, hoping that he’ll follow me, and that, if we ascend far enough, I can turn it back on and he’ll snap out of whatever state it is he’s in. But it’s as if he runs into a wall, because despite having no air to breathe, he does not follow me. His thrashing stops, although I can see he is still fully conscious. His arms float down to his side and the knife drops down and disappears inside the pool.
Then, something unexpected happens. I descend again, above Bill’s head, which is now focused again on the pool, and I turn his air back on. He barely seems to notice, although I can see his limbs relax. I look at him for another moment and think back on the time he saved me underwater. It seems melodramatic to use the word, because, after all, I had plenty of air — I’d just forgotten how to use it — but he did. He saved me. And all of those feelings flood back to me: a mixture of gratitude, resentment, and shame. I think of Genevieve at the surface waiting for me. The others too. I’m the hero this time. I was the first to realize the pool’s nature, what it was trying to do to us, and with one more glance in Bill’s direction I turn and begin to ascend, the barren landscape of gore coming into full view again as I rise, and as the surface becomes brighter and brighter above me, I try not to think about whether I’m being cruel or merciful to leave him, vengeful or kind. I can see the hull of the boat growing larger as I ascend, and just as I’m about to break the surface I look back, can see that Bill is no longer there. Just that beautiful, teary eye, staring up at me.
NICK KIMBRO is a graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder. His fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Spring Gun Journal, Heavy Feather Review, Weird Tales, Space Squid, and the new anthology Ocean Stories from Elekrik Milkbath Press. He is recently married; his honeymoon was nowhere close to the ocean.