by Elous Telma
Chapter 15: Deep and Surface Expeditions
J-Cap checked the two spy monitors. Frank was on neither one. To make sure Frank hadn’t left his boat while he was checking the video footage at the control panel, he walked to Frank’s boat and peeked through his window. He saw Frank’s bed, but Frank wasn’t in it. The covers had been moved. Frank must have gotten up.
J-Cap returned to his boat to check the monitors once again. Frank wasn’t on the screens, but he did see Frank by the naked eye, and then through the help of binoculars, quietly walking on the shore towards the explosion hole. J-Cap wanted to see what Frank was up to. He appeared to be watching the waters, calmly, not moving much, as if he was waiting for something. J-Cap started walking rapidly towards Frank, some distance behind him.
As J-Cap got closer, he could see Frank still staring at the waters. J-Cap increased his distance from the shore to avoid being seen by Frank. He wanted to confront Frank but first wanted to see what he was up to.
Frank was within the field of view of the cameras, but no human eye was watching them. He had moved to the edge of the explosion hole, and J-Cap was thirty meters or so behind him. Frank leaned towards the water and took some in his hand. He then sat down by the hole, with his legs in the water, dressed in his shorts and T-shirt. He gently got into the water, and he held himself from protruding pieces of metal from the explosion site, just as he had done before.
Fawkes and Hanson were two kilometers below with their bright lights, waiting for the sand to settle, but their lights couldn’t make it to the surface. Still, Frank was looking towards the bottom of the Aquarium, somewhere towards where he imagined the lake would be.
J-Cap moved closer to Frank. In fact, he was now right behind him. “Frank.”
Frank turned towards J-Cap but didn’t seem startled.
“Frank, there are sharks in these waters.” J-Cap had a very direct and serious attitude, but he almost seemed curious to the point of being entertained. He wasn’t being an insensitive watcher of a potential madman, but he was deeply interested to find out what was wrong with Frank or, by extension, with these waters.
Frank replied, “They’re not sharks.”
“We’ve seen them. They are sharks.”
“Meni touched one,” said Frank. “It followed her.”
“Why would a shark follow Meni?”
“They are not just sharks.”
“They may be,” J-Cap objected. “Aren’t you afraid of them?”
J-Cap persisted. “There are at least two of them in these waters. And this is not an ocean. How do you know they are not right under your feet?”
“They are right under my feet. I’m touching one of them with my toes.”
Frank let go of the protruding metal and let his body fall into the waters. J-Cap saw a large shark fin also splashing the surface. The shark, or whatever it was, seemed to follow Frank.
J-Cap was concerned that his intervention might have caused trouble. He also wanted answers, and he was irritated that Frank would not oblige his curiosity. He quickly leaned into the water and, with a motion that looked like a fast punch through the surface of the water, he grabbed Frank and pulled him out. He made Frank sit on the ledge of the walkway. Frank’s feet were still dangling in the water, and J-Cap noticed the water moving right next to them, clearly being disturbed by one of the sharks. He noticed the tip of one of its fins.
“Move!” he shouted to Frank and pulled him backwards. With the power of J-Cap’s yank, Frank found himself standing on his feet, still facing the waters, a meter or so away from the water and the shark’s fin. He immediately dove into the water, head first. He appeared within a couple of seconds, the shark beside him, its dorsal fin out of the water and its eyes bobbing above the surface as small waves passed. Frank looked straight at a bewildered J-Cap as if telling him to leave him alone, that he needed to be there, and that there was no reason to worry.
Uncharacteristically, J-Cap had no comeback, no orders to give or follow, and no idea of how to handle this situation. He kept staring at Frank, hoping to get some feedback, but Frank’s expression remained unchanging. Nor did the shark’s attitude change; it seemed uninterested in eating Frank.
J-Cap realized he wasn’t getting answers, and he even felt awkward and intrusive, whatever was happening. He turned around and started walking towards the control center, feeling completely empty.
* * *
Down by the lake, the rover’s lights were on full power, reflecting off the lake’s surface. The Watermelon cast more light onto the lake’s surface. Fawkes and Hanson were mesmerized by this view, beneath a 2-kilometer high salt-water column. If you saw the Watermelon, you would be forgiven for thinking it had an expression of painful anticipation as it pointed towards their destination. That expression was also in the faces of everyone by the control center. Everyone except for Frank and J-Cap, who were dealing with their own, special issues.
“Deploy,” Fawkes said calmly to Hanson.
Hanson had the control of the rover’s arms and the high-resolution camera that was attached to one of them. With precise movements, he slowly lowered the camera towards the lake surface. The rover was very close to the edge of the “shore,” and the arm was not even 2 meters in length, but he thought he could dip it in. He was careful not to touch the sand; he let the camera dive straight into the lake.
Video footage was coming crisp and clear to the rover’s monitor for Fawkes and Hanson to watch. The Watermelon couldn’t see anything, although Taro had asked Cannavaro to try and point its camera through the rover’s windows towards the monitor. That didn’t work out.
The camera broke the lake’s surface. Fawkes and Hanson squinted at the monitor. The bright lights reflecting from the surface had turned the automatic settings on the camera; it was now acquiring a much darker image, and most of the screen was black.
While the camera’s automatic exposure was adjusting, Fawkes and Hanson frantically signaled the Watermelon to move closer to the lake’s surface and shine its light into the lake right above the camera and help it out. At the control panel, Taro and the others could see footage of Fawkes and Hanson that the Watermelon was sending to the shore through its fiber optics cable. They correctly interpreted their request, and Cannavaro managed to give them some extra light.
The new light and the camera’s automatic exposure adjustments brought back the first usable footage of the inside of the lake. There wasn’t much structure at all. There also wasn’t a bottom. It was just a vast, bottomless area. How deep they couldn’t tell, although they assumed the lights could probably penetrate 50 to 100 meters.
They turned the camera towards the walls of the lake, right under the rover, to try and follow the walls downwards and estimate some depths. But there were no walls to see when they pointed the camera at a depth of a few tens of meters. They realized that the diameter of the lake increased with depth. The rover was probably standing on a thin layer of sand-covered rock.
Fawkes ran the flotation program in his head. The rover was equipped with air bags that could bring it up to the surface by buoyancy. In fact, the plan was to use them to come up anyway, avoiding the uphill marathon on the Aquarium’s winding road. They sat there, moving the camera around, capturing little more than bottomless brine water.
The prettiest images were of the halocline that formed when the camera came out of the brine and the very salty water mixed with the Aquarium waters of normal salinity.
The rover went around the lake and lowered the camera again to capture vast expanses of clear, brine water. On its way it sampled brine and the streak it had previously encountered. The Watermelon was always with them, shedding a bit of extra light to wherever the rover’s camera was pointing, except for the few times the Watermelon pointed to Fawkes and Hanson to check up on them. And their monitor, although to no avail.
Neither Hanson nor Fawkes were any good at pantomime and were unable to explain to the control center what they had seen by gesture alone, which included the common two-handed gesture for “nothing.”
“What the hell does that mean!?” exclaimed Cannavaro.
Fawkes and Hanson had anticipated that reaction and had written on a piece of paper: “Bottomless!” and placed it by the rover’s dome for the Watermelon to see.
“Time to go up? We may be eroding the camera in the brine waters. Who knows what it is made of?” asked Fawkes.
“We can take it up the road for a few minutes — what do you think?” replied Hanson.
They checked the rover’s readings and decided they could afford it. They crossed the Aquarium floor to the beginning of the road and started riding up. The rover was handling the uphill journey well. There were holes of different sizes all along the wall of the winding Aquarium road. Some had fish in them, some revealed nothing.
Cannavaro expertly maneuvered the Watermelon to the entrance of several of these holes. Which were man-made and which were a result of erosion was not clear. The rover continued its upwards trip. Some meters ahead of it, there seemed to be a large cloud of something, maybe a fluffy kind of seaweed. Fawkes stopped the rover. He then started moving slowly towards the cloud. He wanted to nudge it with the rover. As he did, the cloud quickly dispersed into all directions.
Fawkes moved the rover ahead, past the cloud, which was still dispersing in the water. He stopped the rover. Both he and Hanson turned towards the cloud. They watched it dissolve as they passed through it. Then they watched it recoil and come back together, perfectly reforming its original shape. It was a motile colonial organism, comprising thousands of tiny organisms, each able to move around individually but working together to create a seemingly large animal. They wished they had a camera fitted with macro lenses.
It was time to return. Fawkes turned the rover towards the center of the Aquarium. He sped up and let the rover go off the road into the emptiness of the Aquarium. He then engaged the air bags which gradually took the rover all the way up to the surface. He made sure they wouldn’t hit the abandoned bubble still hanging from the center of the Aquarium. But they had a leeway of about one kilometer, and neither of them worried much about it.
They started going upwards and they were mostly under the control of buoyancy. They were eager to share their experience with the others. The Watermelon was always watching them but keeping a distance to avoid getting its fiber optics cable in the way of the rover’s ascent.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma