Bewildering Stories

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Chapter 4, “The Lake”
part III, conclusion

by Tala Bar

Gaia began in issue 88.
Chapter 4, part III, installment 1 appeared in issue 103.

You don’t think we’ve brought you all that way here to die, Dar! The voice exclaimed in her mind.

“But where can I go from here? And how?” she demanded.

You should go into the rock, was the answer.

Dar stared at the blunt surface in front of her. “You are joking! You are playing with me!” she protested.

Touch the rock! The voice demanded, with no explanation this time.

The rock looked very solid and impenetrable, and Dar saw no reason to think anything could happen to it if she touched it. ‘Am I Moses to break up a rock, to draw anything from it?’ she asked herself. Defiant of all this futility, no longer patient to be instructed in that unexplained way, Dar did as she was bid, expecting a harsh, cool resistance to her hand. Instead, to her astonishment, the dark surface dissolved under her hand, which immersed in it as in a thick liquid.

She felt herself being pulled in, still not knowing what she was getting into. Then, the water and everything in it was gone. Instead of any kind of rocky substance, she was surrounded by a sort of spongy stuff, dark but full of air bubbles. She noticed the bubble had vanished from over her head, and she was actually breathing freely, from the air inside the spongy rock.

It’s not an ordinary rock, of course, she heard the voice in her head again, but you had to find it out for yourself. The material is rather similar to that of the bubble’s, a semi-permeable stuff that lets oxygen molecules pass through and dissolve among what looks like a rocky substance.

Dar, having to accept that explanation, relaxed and looked around her new environment. Some of the cephaloids had come out of the water and were floating around her inside the spongy material. But now, being inside an airy environment instead of their usual watery one, each of them was wearing the same kind of bubble she had had around her head in the water, which, unlike hers, was filled with water instead of air. ‘That thing has a double function,’ she mused, finding herself more relaxed than she had expected. She was definitely entertained by what she was seeing and experiencing, some of her natural courage having returned to her, enough to demand more explanations that she had had up till now.

“As you are being so good in talking to me,” she said, pleasantly, “will you please explain to me what this is all about? Where am I, and who are you — and how is it that you have not been destroyed with the rest of Earth? And where are my companions? I am really concerned about the girl Nim, you know.” It was good to go back thinking about others instead of about herself.

The girl and the old man are safe on the Island, Dar heard the answer in her mind. She reflected for a moment, breathing slowly, as if she was trying out the strange stuff around her that passed for air.

“Will he look after her, you think?” She asked, wondering how they were able to find that out.

They’ll look after each other, don’t worry about them, was the answer.

Dar took a little more time to reflect. “I still don’t know who you are. And how come you are still alive here in this beautifully whole place? And your world so untouched by the destruction that has occurred above? Or, don’t you know what’s happening, what has happened?”

One of cephaloids came forward. It looked larger than the others, its shade of green both deeper and more luminescent, its red eyes having a deep, purplish tinge. I am Timma, the creature said without opening any mouth that Dar could see. She realized again she was hearing the words in her mind rather that her ears. There seemed to be a touch of musical ripple in its stream of thoughts, full of high and low overtones that echoed in Dar’s mind. These are all my children, Timma continued, and we are all the children of Gaia.

“Gaia?” Dar wondered. It was the name of some goddess in the long lost past, she recalled; then something else came to her mind. “They used to call the Earth by that name at one time, when they still tried to save the globe from the disaster of pollution and destruction,” she pondered. “But they never succeeded, did they? Not when world peace had been achieved, and Man really took over all the rest of it, to feed all those billions of people...”

Except Man had never reached us, the cephaloid’s voice sounded very dry to Dar’s mental ears. Gaia took care of that very well.

“She certainly did...” Dar replied bitterly, suddenly recalling her own family, which had been annihilated without having anything to do with the sins toward Gaia and her creatures. “I congratulate you...”

Let’s stop that for now, Timma said, as if sensing Dar’s feelings.

The ripples in the creature’s voice were as soft as a cushion when it spoke, and Dar found herself thinking about it as female. You are very tired and hungry, it continued. Sit here, on this protrusion in the rock, and we’ll look after you. It pointed with one of its five arms to a part of the rock. Dar, still confused and agitated, thought that if that rocky seat’s substance was as spongy as the rest of it, it would be impossible for her to sit on it.

She was wrong, though. The seat was hard solid, as if made of actual rock. As her mind calmed down again, she noticed that some of the seaweed had been penetrating inside the sponge; they were piling up, as if by intention, on top of the hard seat for her to sit on comfortably. Thinking of the kelp in that way as of a live creature, Dar felt very uncomfortable sitting down on it.

It’s all right, Timma pacified her at the same time as the seaweed encircled her legs with its fronds, pushing her softly down into a sitting position. The ripple heard in Dar’s mind sounded very much like a giggle.

Now, that she felt relatively fixed in one place, Dar was able to look more closely at the cephaloids, and she gazed curiously at them. They did not look so much like squid as she had thought at first. Their arms, for instance, had no suckers along them, but were smooth as human arms, though not so thick. The five of them were arranged in a circle around the inflated body-heads, interacting with each other as human arms might do; at the end of each, there was a prehensile hand with five flexible digits, also arranged in a circle. She thought these must be even more useful than the human hand. She could not see any other body part the creatures might have had.

Some of the cephaloids came into the spongy rock, carrying various kinds of weeds. They brought the stuff over to Dar, and she heard Timma’s voice again in her head, You should be able to eat these, you don’t need to hesitate; it’s quite good and wholesome. In her mind, Dar got a sense of a smile in the creature’s voice, echoing the gleam in its red eyes. I am sure it would be tasty for you as much as it is for us, Timma added, reassuringly.

She had no alternative, Dar knew; there was no way she could fend for herself in that foreign environment. With a seemingly sure hand, masking a hesitating mind, she took a sample of the weed. It did not feel wet, but cool and crunchy, not as soft as it looked. She put it bravely in her mouth, certain the creatures had not brought her all that way only to poison her; on the other hand, what did they know about human taste or physiological makeup?

The weeds, however, tasted fine — lovely, in fact; they felt fresh, with a nutty flavor and a tinge of sweetness. Much better, in fact, than the artificial stuff humans have been consuming for such a very long time. Were the creatures aware of that? Had they drawn the idea out of her mind? A rippling laughter burst all around her, causing wavelets to lap among the seaweed. Yes! You are really getting it! a multiple voice screamed at her, cheerfully, while Timma did her best to hush it down. Dar continued to munch greedily, relaxing even further into a sense closer to well-being and even enjoyment.

* * *

Dar could never tell how long she had stayed with the cephaloids, having seen no alterations of daylight and nighttime; the creatures themselves supplied enough light for her to be able to vaguely discern her surroundings. In a short time she got used to the duskiness, felt she saw as much as she needed to see. Many times she would go out swimming in the company of Timma’s “children,” wearing the bubble on her head; but mostly she would sit inside the “rock,” conducting long talks with the mother of her tribe, as she called the head cephaloid in her mind.

After Dar’s first underwater meal, most of the globules had filtered out and only very few remained with her and Timma. These others had been floating at a respectful distance from Dar, allowing her space for rest and refreshment, not crowding her like those she thought must have been the younger and more common ’people’.

We can talk more seriously, now that you have rested and satisfied your hunger, Timma opened again.

“As a physician,” Dar started slowly, “I would not mind understanding how all this works,” she made a sweeping movement to include the spongy rock, and the bubbles enwrapping the cephaloids to help them breath out of the water. “Such technique might be a great help to us, humans, in all kinds of circumstances.”

There was a pause, in which Timma seemed to confer with her companions. The same sort of telepathy they used with Dar must have been their normal means of communication; but unless they turned directly to her, she was unable to understand, or even “hear” what they were talking about. ‘Just like what happened in the jungle’, she remembered; ‘there also we understood them when they talked to us, but not when they communicated among themselves.’

At a sign from Timma, another cephaloid approached Dar, and she noticed its shade of green was lighter, and the red of its eyes almost as light as orange. Dar sensed that it must have been younger and less experienced than Timma; she wondered what it was that he had to say to her.

Mont is the one who can explain all this to you, the older cephaloid said; he is what your society might call a ‘scientist’, although the function is not exactly the same amongst us.

Dar tried to discern any gender signs in Mont, but saw no difference from Timma except what she thought were the marks of age.

We have no genders, the creature said in her mind, its voice sounding full of reverence — perhaps at the mere fact of being permitted to speak in such extraordinary circumstances.

“You have no sexual differentiation?” She asked, astonished. ‘What would humans do without sex?’ she wondered.

“The purpose of sex differentiation is to lead to the mixture of genes in order to improve the chances for adapting to changes in the environment. We do it in a different way.”

The creature paused, and Dar had an idea it was looking toward its elder, although in their circular shape it was difficult to determine what they were looking at.

Timma is parallel to your females, because she is the only one who gives birth in your sense of the word, it announced in her mind. She collects the genetic material of all the rest of us, mixes it in a random way with her own stuff inside her body, and, when the new cells grow and take the shape of the whole creature, she gives birth to them. That’s how we keep our genetic material alive, without the need for sexual activity.

“You are all males, then?”

Not exactly — we just don’t give birth, that’s all. As long as Timma lives, she’s the mother of us all in your sense of the word, whatever we are.

Dar fell silent for a while, pondering. “What about this stuff the bubble, and that rock, are made of?” She asked, turning the conversation. “Do you make it, or is it natural? Do you make anything at all?” she added, realizing she had not seen any artificial appliances under water. But of course, she had not been everywhere, yet.

We don’t make things. We use stuff and material that is available, shaping it to our need. Actually, the bubbles are created from this rock and others like it, which exist around the bottom of the lake. But we don’t change the environment by using its materials to suit ourselves. We are very good at adapting ourselves to the environment instead.

Again, Dar reflected on the creature’s words and ideas. Yes, it was different from what humans were doing, had been doing for centuries and millennia; and it was certainly better for Earth.

“How is it you haven’t been affected by the pollution which has spread all over the earth, or do you live deep enough to avoid it?”

It’s not only the depth, although that helps; but that spongy stuff also processes any pollution that manages to come down to us, producing pure air and water...

“And the storm we’ve been through, is it common here? Or are you not affected by it either?”

These storms occur at a certain frequency, it was Timma who answered this time. They don’t reach us at the bottom, but they prevent us from going closer to the surface. At such times, this place serves as a refuge for air-breathing creatures, who had been prevented from surfacing by the conditions above.

Instinctively, Dar looked around her; but she could see no further than the spongy rock. “Are there any air-breathing creatures here, then? I don’t think I’ve seen any...”

Not any more, not now. A great sadness sounded in Timma’s mental voice, and Dar did not refer to it any more. Instead, she asked, feeling a surge of alarm rising in her heart, “But where can one go from here? You’re not telling me I’ll have to stay here for ever!”

No, don’t worry, the pacifying bubbly voice sounded again in her mind. When the time comes, we’ll show you the way out of the water. Until that time, we invite you to stay and enjoy yourself, to learn some more about us and our life here.

So she stayed, unaware of time passing, until Timma said it was time for her to leave and go back to her companions on the island.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2004 by Tala Bar

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