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
Finally, in went the Disposable along with its support equipment. It was lowered slowly, to make sure nothing would get entangled. Everybody’s attention was fixed on the equipment, especially the monitors. There were no fish in sight. All they could see was a beam of light through clear but otherwise black water.
Eventually, the camera reached the floor and, a few minutes later, the lake surface. They turned on the Disposable and its floodlight, and the Watermelon’s camera brought them the confirming images.
A few seconds later, the monitor dedicated to the sacrificial camera displayed its first pictures; the angle seemed fine as the camera was looking at the surface from a couple of meters above it.
To compensate for the weight of the Disposable and its ballast, a floating device had been attached to the Watermelon. In that way, the Watermelon was prevented from sinking too fast, and it was able to stop above the surface long enough to release the Disposable.
Cannavaro operated the mechanical arm of the Watermelon and unhooked the Disposable over the center of the lake. As soon as he did, the Watermelon started floating gently upwards. Left to its own devices, it would slowly reach the top of the Aquarium. To avoid that, he rotated its motors upwards, keeping the submersible in position over the lake.
The Watermelon was now hovering as the disposable began its journey into the lake. As the two types of water mixed under the Disposable’s lights, the team realized how different these two consistencies were. They could not observe any diffusion. Just separated strands of water that were moving around and reconnecting with their original source.
This liquid was certainly not good for electronics. The Disposable was in free fall, and it was very difficult for the scientists to orient themselves by video. There was no reference point, just clear, salty water all around. They did not know how fast the Disposable was sinking.
“The walls must start converging as the camera sinks,” exclaimed Taro. “I don’t even know where it is facing.”
“There!” said Meni, pointing towards some fuzzy pixels on the monitor.
Just beyond the beam of light was what seemed like the top of a mound. Quite pointy, too.
“I hope the camera is moving towards that thing,” said Cannavaro. “I still don’t know where it’s going.”
“Shouldn’t it be just sinking vertically?” asked Meni. “What is there to move it around?”
“Well, the shape of the contraption will have some effect,” answered Taro. “But only a mild one.”
“I think it’s going there,” Meni said. “Isn’t it clearer, now?”
“Yes, it is clearer,” Cannavaro’s voice was deeper and calmer than ever. He was probably the first to realize that this mound was not made of rock and dirt.
Alexandros exclaimed, “These are dead fish. This is a pile of dead fish.”
Fawkes applied his methodical engineering mind: “Well, you know, fish die, then they sink. They have a good chance to sink into the lake. Maybe the chemistry of the water doesn’t let them degrade, and they pile up. We use salt to preserve fish, after all.”
Hanson was dubious. “Thanks, Fawkes. Thanks, anyway, but this is still hard to swallow.”
“Relax, people,” Fawkes advised. “Okay, dead fish have piled up in a mound. We can handle this. These are lots of fish here.”
The team had only seen the tip of the pile. As the camera slowly descended, uncertainty dissipated; this was a hill of dead fish, and it was evidently very well preserved.
Taro observed philosophically, “Fish die anyway. No need to feel sadder for these fish than you do for any other fish that dies in the ocean. Remember, we have all been enjoying J-Cap’s fish creations at the dinner table.”
Like Fawkes, Taro was trying to rationalize the situation. People weren’t really feeling sorry for the fish; they were just seeing something they could never have expected to see. It did make them feel sad, though: so many piled-up fish...
The team members were all staring at the monitors, trying to register every single fish on the pile. Some fish species were recognizable, many weren’t. There were too many to keep track of, even at the slow sinking speed of the Disposable.
Meni was so transfixed to the monitor that her eyes kept going to the bottom right corner of the screen, from where new fish would appear as the camera moved downwards. The somber atmosphere was suddenly interrupted by her gasp: she was the first to notice what appeared to be the body of a person within the heap of dead creatures.
Meni did not say anything, and the others squinted at the screen, trying to understand what she saw. It did look like a person’s corpse. The camera was getting closer to it, giving them a progressively better view. It was an old lady, dressed in a long pair of pants, sporty shoes, a shirt and a sweater. She was lying on her back, on top of fish, on the side of the mound. Her left side was towards the water and her right arm was inside the pile.
There were no signs of injury on her; nothing seemed to have bitten her, before or after death. Her head was pointing upwards, towards the surface of the lake, and the surface of the Aquarium, 2 kilometers above. Her eyes were open, and she gave the impression her death had been far from pleasant.
Taro said, “Like the fish, people who die above are also likely to find their way down there.”
Cannavaro surmised, “She may be a scientist. We can search on the web for images of former Aquarium scientists. We will identify her. Plenty of people have visited this place. Alone, it can prove dangerous.”
Alexandros noted, “She must have come here in colder months, wearing that sweater. What year, I wouldn’t know.”
Hawkes speculated, “Maybe she brought the cat. That would make it relatively recently. Probably this past winter, I would guess.”
The camera took its last glimpse of Nannion’s possible former custodian and continued its journey downwards. Meni knew she would have to show the images to Nannion, eventually. The pile of fish was less pointy, the deeper it got. There were smaller side-mounds and even small plains, just like a real mountain. On top of one of the plains, a large shark, just like the one that accompanied Nannion was lying, facing the camera. It dwarfed every other fish.
“So they die,” said Hanson.
This one made everyone sad. A majestic animal may not have more right to life than any other, but its death can feel sadder. What a beast! Meni was convinced this was the same shark she had touched earlier. And now it was gone. What had happened to it? Poor thing.
Then Eiko took a step towards the monitor and, without saying a word, touched the screen, right where the shark’s gills were. She saw them twitch, ever so slightly. Did they really twitch? Or was it a trick of the light?
As everyone tried to see what Eiko had pointed out, who was still not talking, the shark opened its eyes. As if woken and disturbed, the shark jerked its whole body and took off upwards, immediately exiting the Disposable’s field of view.
Fawkes shouted, “Cannavaro, point the Watermelon towards the lake! Maybe we can capture some more footage, if it reaches the lake surface, and see where it’s going.”
Cannavaro quickly took the Watermelon’s controls and pointed it downwards. The lake surface was too reflective to see much through it, but that was all he could do. Moments later, the shark’s snout came through the lake’s surface, mixing the two kinds of water and creating the most unique halocline they had ever seen.
After the snout, its whole body broke the surface. It seemed to stop the upwards journey, momentarily. It started convulsing, but the camera wasn’t able to take a view of its face. It must have been struggling to breathe, though. They could tell because big bursts of lake water would come out of its gills, unable to mix with the more common composition of the Aquarium waters.
Then, the shark started swimming upwards very fast. It created a vortex that made the Watermelon spin uncontrollably. Within a few seconds, the shark was nowhere to be seen. Cannavaro tried pointing the Watermelon upwards but, as they expected, the shark was too far away to locate.
“Is it coming up?” Meni asked.
“Possibly,” Taro said. “It probably will.”
Meni said, “It has no claspers. I noticed. That shark is a girl.”
“It should take her several minutes to reach the surface,” Taro added. “It’s not a missile... We should see what is going on in the lake.”
Everyone resumed their monitor observations. There were more dead fish, peaks and valleys made of them. They couldn’t yet see the bottom of the lake. But they did notice what appeared to be inorganic material among the pile of fish corpses.
Hanson asked, “Is this rock?”
“Perhaps,” Cannavaro replied. “I can’t tell. It looks like a mineral.”
“Doesn’t that make it rock? Or are you thinking it may be bio-mineralization?”
“It’s possible. Something has to account for those eggs we saw. If we could get a better look...”
Alexandros pointed to what appeared like large pores onto the rigid material. “It looks neatly structured; it could be biological.”
Meni pointed, too. “Look, these are spikes, like sea urchins.”
Cannavaro agreed. “Yes, these look like urchin spikes. They are moving, too.”
Little spikes were slowly moving, just as a sea urchin does. But large ones soon appeared in the field of view, extending well into the pile of fish like the frame of a fake Christmas tree. In fact, these spikes seemed to be supporting the pile, preventing it from collapsing.
“This may be the egg producer,” Taro said. “There could also be other creatures down here. We haven’t reached the bottom.”
As Taro said those words, a big crack on the camera appeared. They all knew what that meant. Moments later, the monitor went black.
The team turned their attention to the Aquarium waters, wondering if the shark would break this surface, too. Meni wished it, everyone expected it; they had seen it before, after all.
How was it surviving the change in pressure and salinity? The Disposable was broken, and no other mission was running.
Cannavaro started bringing the Watermelon back up. He turned it around every now and then on the remote chance that it would pick up the shark. Nothing appeared. He let the Watermelon come up on its own by letting it float upwards and directing it roughly towards the center of the Aquarium. Then he joined the others who all stood quietly, gazing at the waters.
Taro broke the silence. “Two kilometers deep, ten to twenty minutes to surfacing?”
“About that,” Fawkes concurred.
That was all that was spoken for the next several minutes. Staring at the waters, under the bright Greek sun for a while gives you the impression that what you see is bleached. The sky looks whitish, and even the waters lose their deep blue color. Your eyes are doing it. It might as well be a lovely, sunny day, if you find yourself waiting for a shark that might or might not appear out of an underwater lake. Depending on what the shark does, your perspective of nature may change. You think you know well enough how nature works, and a fish may be about to prove you wrong.
Frank, in the meantime, had joined the team, also waiting to see what the shark had in mind. He had swum with her, he felt he had connected with her, and he knew that somewhere in this whole craziness, his depression, his visions, Mari, even Meni’s experience, and the little humanoid, the sharks had a part. He too stared at the waters, waiting.
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma