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 18: The Sacrificial Camera
Alexandros’ arrival at Dioptra was marked by warm and very succinct greetings. A pleasant breeze had cleared the air; hopefully, the chemical that might have affected Mari would cause no serious problems, at least for now.
The entire team got to work immediately. The plan was fairly complex but would yield invaluable film footage from inside the lake. Cannavaro’s tethered Watermelon would descend to the surface of the brine lake. In its pincers, it would carry Alexandros’ camera.
To minimize the chances of leakage of brine into the camera, the team added sealant into every crevice they could find on the camera. The camera — already referred to as the Disposable despite Alexandros’ obvious discomfort — also needed to be tethered, because radio signals transmit very poorly through salt water and, especially, brine.
The Disposable would be tethered to the Watermelon by a thin cable about two hundred meters in length. Thus, the Watermelon would serve both as a vehicle to transport the Disposable to the lake surface and as a relay station helping to bring the footage up to the ground station.
Some electrical engineering had to be performed for the task. To sink the Disposable into the lake, ballast was hooked onto it. The camera would be facing approximately forty-five degrees downwards as the Disposable descended. In this way, it would “see” downwards as it was descending.
* * *
Nannion woke up from a light nap on her bed. She didn’t feel like getting up, so she lay on her side, contemplating her fate, full of loneliness and worry about resources. It was getting a bit harder every day to quench her thirst; the water was becoming less and less fresh. This was her first summer on the island, and it was getting hotter and hotter almost every day.
In Greece, temperatures peak in July and August. Nannion had a long spell of heat ahead of her, although she didn’t know how much.
In Athens, shop keepers would set out bowls of fresh water for cats and dogs, and she had grown up taking good and plentiful water for granted. Now there was no guarantee how long she would have access to any kind of drinkable water.
She also suspected that these humans were not likely to stay on the island forever; humans had a tendency to disappear. Dioptra was a desolate place, and Nannion was tempted by human hands; she had been petted before.
In Athens, the occasional shopper or tourist would give her a little petting; after all, she was a very cute little cat with a whitish coat that stood out from many other ones. The old lady had also caressed her fondly, and Nannion missed her. She sighed, as cats can do, and lay still on the bed.
A little time later, she got up and climbed onto the window ledge to observe the team of marine biologists preparing the Disposable. The preparations looked like a ritual; everyone was involved and working decisively, and the mood was serious, a reflection of the scientists’ understanding of the situation as they were gearing up to peek inside this underwater lake. Nannion, too, was focused on her task. She needed to plan her next steps carefully, and she was well aware of the gravity of the repercussions her decisions entailed.
Cats use offerings to communicate. Sometimes they bring dead prey as gifts, or living ones, to entice owners to practice their inadequate hunting skills. Nannion had very little to bring, if she wanted to make contact. She thought of trying to catch a fish. That took plenty of work, and normally she had better luck on the edge of the island, by open waters.
Nannion went to the sea side and tried to find a fish swimming close to the shore. But there were no fish. She walked around, staring at the shallow waters, but to no avail. She eventually saw a tiny fish and tried to grab it with a quick snap with her left paw. But it escaped, and all she could do was shake the water off her paw.
She went to the Aquarium side, but her luck didn’t change; she saw nothing at all. She sat down with her front paws dangling over the apparently empty water, hoping to see a catch. She glanced regularly towards the team of humans to her left. Little more than distance was keeping her out of their sight. But she wasn’t worried about being seen, at this point. Suddenly, a large shadow appeared right in front of her.
An enormous head broke the water’s surface, and an eye took a good look at her. It was the shark! She knew the shark, although she didn’t remember it clearly from her adventure on the walkway.
She stood up and gave out a little meow. She liked the shark. The first time she had seen it, she was scared by its sheer size, but she had never had a problem with it. If anything, watching it was a fun break from her repetitive life. As the shark’s head sank gently under the surface of water, she gave it a little friendly bump with her paw.
The little extra adrenaline this encounter gave her helped her overcome her inhibitions, and she started walking along the shore, with the shark at her side, towards the humans. She galloped, at first, looking frequently at her companion fish. As she approached the team, she slowed her pace to a confident walk, her eyes focused on the people.
The scientists were continuing their work with no loss of determination. All were deeply focused on their tasks. Alexandros, the newest member of the team, was still enthralled by the location, and he couldn’t resist scanning his new environment. He was the first to see Nannion approaching.
The sunlight was reflected onto the Aquarium waters, and Nannion was lit by both direct sunlight and the reflections. She was well camouflaged, being a dirty off-white on a barren, dry, Greek island. Behind her was the building whose desolate safety she had left behind. Rocks, bushes, and the open waters completed her background.
“You didn’t bring a cat, did you?” Alexandros asked the others.
“No,” replied Taro, looking at Alexandros, wondering why he would have asked such a question.
Everyone stopped work and looked at the cat. The glaze on the water surface from the sun rays had turned the surface of the Aquarium a completely opaque liquid.
Meni took a couple of steps towards the water and raised her hand, pointing towards a fin emerging next to the cat. Hanson gently pulled Meni away from the water, for safety. The shark made a gentle, undulating dive, momentarily showing its enormous head, then its body and, finally, its tail. Then it disappeared under the surface.
Nannion stopped twenty meters or so away from them and sat on her hind legs. She saw Taro, Cannavaro, Alexandros, Fawkes, and Hanson looking bewildered, and that put her a little off. Eiko looked even more perplexed, and Nannion avoided eye contact with her. J-Cap was also trying to process the event.
The brunette girl who had pointed towards the fin seemed calm, as if she were in tune with Nannion. She appeared very friendly and not particularly confused. Indeed, she walked towards Nannion and picked her up. Nannion now found herself in the air, with Meni’s left hand under her chest and her other hand under Nannion’s hind legs.
Meni held Nannion in a comfortable position. Now it was Nannion’s turn to feel confused. She had never been held like this before. The occasional head scratch and even the old lady’s petting had been nothing like this. Nannion started purring as she never had before except, perhaps, on the walkway, where something had caused her mind to wander. But she had been alone then, and there really was no comparison to touching Meni’s chest. Meni showed the cat to the others.
“J-Cap, can you check the buildings?” Taro asked. J-Cap obliged immediately and went looking for holes in the structures and other cats.
“Meni, you can give the cat food and water from J-Cap’s leftover meal,” Taro added.
Meni took her to Taro’s boat and prepared a nice sea-food meal and a bowl full of fresh water. Nannion was in bliss, reliving her Athenian days, Japanese-gourmet style. She stuffed herself so much that she could barely stay awake. Meni placed her on the fake leather seats on the deck of Taro’s boat, and Nannion almost immediately fell into a deep sleep. After all, she had made her decision to trust the humans, she had given up her clandestine existence, and now she would face the consequences — hopefully positive.
Meni returned to the preparations for the sacrificial camera. Alexandros shared his thoughts. “She’s probably been stranded here for who knows how long. Maybe someone brought her along and left her; maybe she traveled unnoticed on some tourist boat and wandered off onto the island. Anyway, let’s prep the Disposable and focus on the task.”
“Sure,” Meni agreed, and they all got back to what they had been doing, except for J-Cap, who was looking for other cats or whatever else might have been stranded on Dioptra.
Cannavaro mused, “We will have to keep the shark at the back of our minds, I guess.”
Taro agreed. “Indeed, we will. We need to go ahead, now.”
The cat slept, J-Cap searched, and everyone else worked on sacrificing a high-end camera in an underwater lake full of water as corrosive as battery acid.
Some time later, with no sense of closure, and no statement of completion, the team gathered to inspect the pimped-up Watermelon. It looked seaworthy and ready to take the dip. Hanson sensed Alexandros’ sadness, having just prepared his precious camera for destruction. Everyone expected Alexandros to give the command to dip it. “Go for it,” he said.
At that moment, J-Cap returned from his investigation. The dipping procedure was paused.
“Anything?” Fawkes asked.
“I think she was alone,” J-Cap said. “This must be the cat’s name,” he continued, showing them a name tag with the word “Nannion” inscribed on it in crude handwriting. It looked like a little tourist tag purchased for a few Euros from the touristy Plaka neighborhood next to Monastiraki.
Someone had written that name by pressing the head of a pen onto the tag. Some blue ink remained in some of the grooves. Clearly, the cat hadn’t done it herself. Most likely, this tag had been around her neck as a collar, had broken, and the cat had kept it on the ledge of her favorite window.
Alexandros explained that Nannion was a female name; the cat had to be a girl.
“Meni, see if she is a girl, will you?” Cannavaro asked her.
Willingly, Meni went to check on the cat that, without making any claims, she felt was her cat. Nannion was sleeping heavily, belly up, and Meni took a quick look. “Yes, she is a girl. Nannion!”
So she was baptized, once again, this time without water or panic. It was a cute little moment, finding a friendly cat on the island, but the mood was heavy. The team was handling too many unpredictable variables.
Frank was in and out of his boat, and in and out of his trance. One minute he seemed fine and, the next, he had blood-shot eyes. No one could tell if he was going to return to normal, cry, or jump in the water. Mari seemed okay on Crete, and they regularly checked on her by phone. Now, a cat had appeared out of the blue. And the large shark that seemed to accompany her had not gone unnoticed.
“The shark wasn’t a coincidence, was it?” Meni started asking Alexandros.
“No, I don’t think so,” he replied brusquely.
Meni didn’t know what else to propose. “Who may have some answers? Frank?”
“I think Frank is affected by whatever is going on,” Alexandros said, “but I think he is completely confused. Maybe more than we are. I don’t think he can lead us to any answers.”
“What about Mari?”
Alexandros shook his head. “Certainly not Mari. She got a bout of whatever is going on here, and her head has hopefully cleared. She is definitely more in the dark than we are.”
“What about Nannion?”
Alexandros nodded. “She may actually be of help. She looks and behaves like a normal cat other than she hangs out with mysterious, gigantic sharks. She may have become accustomed to this place and the life here. Whatever that means.”
Meni persisted. “What do you think it means?”
Alexandros sighed. “I really don’t know. But a lot of creatures here behave strangely. Some appear comfortable in their weird existence, like the shark and the cat. Others, most prominently Frank and Mari, appear to break down completely. Some are in sync, some are thrown off. The rest of us, for now, at least, seem unaffected. We may have a higher threshold for whatever chemical is acting on things. That’s all I’m getting. We’re not off the hook.”
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma