by Janie Hofmann
Arcadia had been trying to get a rise out of Marche all day. He had given up playing songs on his flute and resorted to annoying screeches; but Marche would not respond. Disappointed, Arcadia finally trotted away.
When he first signed up for Second Quarter, all Marche cared about was not marrying Utola. Yes, Utola’s parents had raised him after his father was killed; but no, he was not going to marry someone who ate and slept all day. Besides, his mother had been a successful prostitute in the Analia zone and had sent Utola’s parents money for his upkeep.
“Hey!” Coy shouted. “I just passed Arcadia, he said you were daydreaming, but you’re supposed to be watching the waste pressure gauge.”
“Arcadia is a rotten pest,” Marche grumbled as he adjusted the gauge with his wrench. “Water sprites are supposed to provide entertainment, not be obnoxious.”
“You should go to the exercise room in the fourth quadrant, those electro-muscle machines and sulfur spas can do wonders,” Coy insisted.
Coy raised his one good arm and folded it in front of Marche, revealing a small lump of bicep muscle beneath his rough scales. Eparians did not build up much muscle. It was as if they were all cartilage and scales, with the exception of their faces, which were eyebrowless with bulging eyes, thin lips and pointed teeth. Many were overweight and flaccid from a diet of sewer-fed squid. Coy was taller than Marche, so he appeared strong, but since loosing his arm, he looked more frail than the stocky Marche.
“Maaaarche, you aren’t thinking what I think you’re thinking, are you?” Coy drawled out. “Come on, tell Old One-Arm here what you are thinking, and he’ll talk you out of it.” Coy sat down beside him, putting his good arm around Marche’s scaly shoulder.
“Coy,” Marche began.
“Here it comes...” groaned Coy, shaking his head, the pectoral fins below his neck flicking with movement.
“I want out, Coy,” Marche stated simply. “I’m bored to death.”
“Everyone’s bored here, Marche,” Coy laughed. “It was either this sewer or the mines, which are just as bad. All that’s left is Spy Quarter, and you don’t choose them, they choose you.”
“You forgot one other option,” Marche said.
“The Aboves?” Coy said.
“You think because Eparia takes care of their sewage that the Aboves would be happy to see you?” Coy asked.
“They grant asylum,” Marche said.
“And if you are caught?” Coy asked. “Desertion from Second Quarter is treason, you know.”
“First I have to get caught, and I won’t,” Marche insisted.
“Well,” Coy mused. “I knew you would expect something from me soon.”
Marche snickered at the comrade whose life he had saved. Last year, when the pipe snapped, Coy had dived right into the chaos to help. The force of sewage water pushed him to the floor and a palette of sheet metal stored in the ceiling fell, crushing his arm. Marche would have run, but the burst pipe blocked his way.
He saw green blood gush from Coy’s shoulder, and instinct told him the limb was gone. One tug of Coy’s fins and his limp body slid away from the useless arm. More sheet metal poured from the ceiling, flooding the area Marche had just pulled Coy from with tons of black iron, burying Coy’s limb.
Two days later, Coy awoke in the infirmary, coughing and gasping for air while the surgeons told him to breathe slowly out of his gills. He felt as though he was swimming inside a jellyfish, looking at the world through a hazy film. His uncle from Spy Sector came to check on him.
Since the accident, Coy was different. He still remained jovial, but there was a new pensive side to his personality. Marche assumed the change was because Coy now owed him, and Marche determined to use this leverage.
“Just give me the details of your fabulous plan.” Coy said while removing scaly film from his eyes.
“I’m going to crawl out through one of the tubes to the sea and emerge into the Aboves. “It’s been done before,” Coy replied. “You will die in open sea.” Eparians had lost the ability to breathe underwater centuries ago.
Marche gave Coy a condescending grin. He had already worked everything out shortly before Coy came back from the infirmary. He had the mini-submersible, thanks to his mother’s friends in the Analia zone. It was very light, being made of new flex material from Lurs. And he had found a tube that coursed with water for thirty hours and stayed empty for fifteen.
Coy insisted on bringing Arcadia in, though Marche had planned to garrote him with a chain before he left. Coy convinced Marche they needed Arcadia as lookout and that he would be happy to be in on the action as like all water sprites, he was underhanded and good at feigning innocence.
They cut into the tube just after the last gush of sewage so as to avoid any explosion from methane. Once inside the tube with the submersible Marche held the cut out from the inside while Coy welded it back into place. Marche stared at the cut out, watching every crevice of light turn into a lumpy black line. When he could no longer see light through any cracks, he pounded on the inside of the tube.
On the outside, Coy nodded to Arcadia. Coy was supposed to pound back to say a last goodbye, but refrained. Arcadia played an eerie tune Coy did not recognize and glanced sideways at Coy, who looked back.
Marche had sealed the hatch on the submersible, the air in the tube being too foul to breathe. He wrapped his scaly arms around his knees and forced himself to breathe slowly.
Agonizing minutes passed, and Marche rocked back and forth, maintaining a rhythm of breathe, rock, breathe, rock, forcing his half amphibian heart to beat slowly.
Then he heard rumbling.
The pipe shook and the submersible lurched forward as the water hit.
“It can’t be that I miscalculated the force of the sewage water,” Marche thought, panicking.
The water surged past the submersible, which stubbornly sat as though welded to the bottom of the pipe. Then the submersible wiggled into a stumble, then a crawl. Finally, it broke loose and shot through the tunnel.
Now Marche was worming his way through the tunnel, and instead of the submersible banging the sides like he had predicted, the soup of waste and water carried it through with ease, spinning counter-clockwise.
In this iron womb, Marche hallucinated, and faces from his youth spilled across the flickering control panel of the submersible. He tried to read the dials, but only saw one memory melting into another. He kept shaking his head, trying not to vomit.
The spinning stopped and the control dash indicated stabilization. He was now in open sea and saw black through the small window, and the rate the submersible was sinking frightened him.
He forced his fingers to touch the control panel, fumbling as his brain slowly caught up with his request. He found the right knob, and the submersible began to climb as his stomach churned. For almost an hour the sub rose like a slow, plump fish, then the control dash beeped like a bad tune on Arcadia’s flute.
The periscope demanded to be put up, but revealed a glowing green color and Marche assumed it was defective. He made the sub rise until he felt a bobbing and then he opened the hatch.
A flush of water grazed his face and chest fins and a blinding light hurt his eyes as a mechanical voice announced: “Spy Quarter Phase I Test Complete.”
The light pulled away and Marche saw a beautiful green grotto with a floating dock carved from rare coral. Two figures stood on the dock and one rushed towards him.
“Congratulations, Marche!” Coy leaned over and pulled him out of the sub. “You did it!”
Marche stumbled onto the dock, looking past Coy at Arcadia, who winked at him. Marche lunged at Arcadia and Coy caught him by the arm.
“Marche,” Coy pressed his face close, whispering. “Spy Quarter has been watching you a long time. If you lose control now, points will be deducted.”
March fought back hysteria, refusing to grasp the meaning of Coy’s words. Skinny armless Coy a Spy Recruiter, along with sea maggot Arcadia. It could not be.
“Don’t feel bad for not seeing it, Marche. Like I said, you don’t choose Spy Quarter, they choose you.” Coy soothed.
Marche scowled and Coy continued, leading Marche down the dock towards a tunnel with soft lights.
“If it makes you feel better, Arcadia had no say in it. It was me.”
“How long?” Marche asked.
“Since I lost my arm,” said Coy. “You remember when my uncle from Spy Quarter came to the infirmary? He told me the Aboves have been sending a lot of subs into our sea space lately, so we needed more spies. But before they recruit, they always test how you handle yourself in a sub in the open sea.”
“Nice way to pay me back,” Marche deadpanned.
“It is, Marche,” Coy smiled. “You’ll see. It will be an interesting life. You may get killed, but you will never be bored again. You will even get to see your mother tomorrow. And you need never worry about Utola or Second Quarter again.”
A door decorated in blue seashells appeared and Coy opened it, gently pushing Marche into a luxurious room.
“Have a lie-down,” he said, pointing to the plush bed. “The Committee will speak to you later.”
“How did I get into that grotto?” Marche asked
“The sub automatically brought you there,” Coy laughed. “You mother was in on it, too; she thought this was a good opportunity for you.”
Coy shut the door and Marche collapsed on the bed exhausted, not even bothering to touch one of the many vials of elixir on the glass table. He dreamed a long time.
Down the hallway, Coy was about to doze off when he heard ankle fins slapping the coral hallway and opened the door.
“Arcadia,” he called.
The sullen sprite turned around, twirling his flute.
“Don’t bother Marche tonight,” Coy suggested. “Just play something soft.”
Arcadia pursed his lips, but agreed, then slipped off.
Coy lay down, slipped into his own murmuring dreams, as Arcadia played a lilting somber tune.
Copyright © 2007 by Janie Hofmann