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 20: Retreat and Ponder
J-Cap was smaller than Frank but clearly stronger. As soon as they hit the water, J-Cap, like a car turning the nitro on, violently pushed Frank below him, wrapped his legs over Frank’s shoulders and behind his back, and lifted himself out of the water. He sat on the shore with Frank pinned under him. He tightened his legs so that Frank would be in considerable pain but took care not to dislocate any joints.
“Where is it now?”
Frank tried to release himself from J-Cap’s grip but couldn’t. Frank didn’t sound like J-Cap had been used to. He was loud, easily half an octave lower than until that morning. “Below.”
“Bring it up,” J-Cap ordered.
Frank continued struggling, and J-Cap inflicted more pain on Frank’s shoulder joints. The sharks’ fins could be seen farther out into the waters, as if the sharks were patrolling the area near the drama.
“I can’t,” Frank said.
“It’s a vision. It’s in my mind. But I can’t control it.”
J-Cap had enough. It was reassuring to see that Frank, even under this chemically-induced state had maintained some reason and that this could be coaxed with some old-fashioned roughness. He pulled Frank out of the water, and they both ran towards the air tanks. J-Cap’s was still providing him with fresh air. Frank took one and started breathing uncontaminated air.
“A bit of adrenaline goes a long way, Frank.”
“I am sorry if I hurt you. I took care not to damage you.”
Frank still seemed confused, and he was dealing with coming back to the real world. A part of him was still trying to return to his state where the little humanoid was real and a bringer of solace. J-Cap was there to prevent that. He engaged Frank in a conversation to keep Frank’s conscious mind active. He also thought he could get some valuable insight.
“What are the sharks looking for?” J-Cap asked. “Do they have a vision, too?”
“Maybe it’s not a vision for them. Maybe they are looking for the cat.”
“You think she is their humanoid?” J-Cap asked. “You think they picked a cat? She comforts them, and she is not confined to the Aquarium. She can get them out. Ironic, really, as she is just as trapped as they are.”
The two now thought they possibly knew how to coax the sharks. They needed Nannion. Meni would understand and they wouldn’t put her in danger. Not much, anyway.
As J-Cap turned towards the open waters side of Dioptra, with Frank by his side, he stopped in his tracks. You know the feeling when someone is looking at you and you directly turn towards them and you momentarily lock eyes with each other?
J-Cap turned back towards the Aquarium. There he saw what appeared to be a streak of gelatinous foam almost reaching the shore. He and Frank went to inspect the foam. They leant to take a closer look. It wasn’t foam, but a mass of jellyfish, ranging in size from tiny creatures to others the size of an orange. There were a few different types, and all seemed to have long, thin tentacles. The sharks kept away from the jellyfish.
Most appeared dead or dying, clumping into a mass that was getting bigger and bigger. Within the jelly mass there were dead fish. Many had sting marks on their bodies, showing that the jellyfish had stingers that were indeed venomous and were killing life in the Aquarium.
J-Cap took a picture with his cell phone and sent it to Taro. On Taro’s boat, the team was trying to make sense of all this. Everyone chipped in to form an integrated working hypothesis of what was going on.
The simplest — not necessarily most likely — analysis posited that there could be one single organism in the lake, thriving in the absence of oxygen and light. They knew this could happen; Cannavaro himself had worked on Loricifera, which did just that.
The lake life form didn’t need another animal to breed with, because it could reverse its life cycle just as Turritopsis does, essentially being able to live forever. The jellyfish would turn back into a polyp, which would grow to become a jellyfish, and so on.
It was likely a colonial organism, with genetically identical components that took on very different roles. Human cells also do that, but they are all physically confined within the body. The ones in the Aquarium might be swimming around, giving the impression that they were distinct organisms, but they were only one. The complex life cycle of such animals would involve highly different forms: rock-bound versions, free-floating eggs, swimming polyps, etc.
The Team hoped J-Cap would zoom his cell phone camera in as much as he could to the mass of jelly. And he did. He leaned towards it to get the highest quality images he could for the team. He sent a dozen pictures to his colleagues.
Alexandros first noticed the jellyfish eyes. “These are complex hybrids,” he remarked. “Box jellyfish do have eyes and they use them to navigate around obstacles. They will bump onto transparent walls but will comfortably avoid opaque ones.”
“Cannavaro, our working hypothesis is getting a little more complex,” Taro noted wryly.
“Sure. This is the common case in biology. They have acquired or maintained primordial aspects of a number of jelly animals. They may be anaerobic, immortal, with eyes. Eyes for detecting bioluminescence?”
“Why are they dying?” Alexandros asked.
“They haven’t figured out how to be aerobic,” Cannavaro answered. “Perhaps. Or, at least, how to survive in normal waters.”
“Why would they care to be in normal waters?” Alexandros asked.
“He is right,” Taro said. “Do they know there are greener pastures beyond the lake?”
Cannavaro nodded. “They may know that there is something more beyond the lake, as they are watching the bottom of the Aquarium waters from underneath.”
Alexandros was more doubtful. “Yes, but why do they care? Why do they have an opinion? And why do they travel two kilometers upwards to the surface?”
Meni had a novel idea. “The strongest driving force is away from something, not towards something.”
“Are you saying they experience negative feelings and that they are trying to escape the lake?” Cannavaro asked.
Meni nodded. “They have eyes. We think they can experience vision. Why wouldn’t they be able to experience displeasure?”
Cannavaro was puzzled. “I am not saying they couldn’t. I am trying to work this thing out with you.”
“I didn’t mean to sound antagonistic,” Meni said. “Maybe whatever is being released and has been messing with our nervous systems may be also messing with theirs, as rudimentary as it may be.”
“So this thing is messing them up just as it is messing us up?” Alexandros asked.
“Perhaps this thing is accessing some very primordial aspect of our emotions that is shared with these very primitive organisms. They want to escape from somewhere, and some of us are desperately searching for comfort in imaginary scenarios.”
Eiko had an objection. “But this ‘something’ is them. At least, if we assume that the chemical is biologically produced and that there is only one animal down there.”
Meni replied, “If you are confined in a small room alone for long enough, even you will want to escape the accumulating smell.”
“What is this negative feeling that a jellyfish experiences?” Eiko asked.
Cannavaro took the argument further. “Yes, they may just want to escape the gradient of this awful chemical, or other chemicals that are also released with it. As they move upwards, and as they gradually start seeing the light with their little jellyfish eyes, they follow it. The jellies probably use their eyes to sense bioluminescence emitted by other jellies as a means of communication. They are probably attracted to light. They don’t know any better. They go upwards. And then they die.”
Hanson had another question. “Why do they need stingers if they feed on dead fish?”
“Good point,” Cannavaro said. “Maybe they feed on live fish. Maybe they extend their tentacles and capture live fish. I’d like to witness that behavior.”
Taro pondered, “Who knows how many cycles they have been through this? Obviously, it must not have happened during the days when the Aquarium was operational. But who knows the periodicity of this thing? Or when the lake was exposed?”
Eiko reached a tentative conclusion: “So, the lake organism is trying to escape the misery that it causes itself?”
Alexandros was inclined to agree. “Sure, Nature does not care about the source of the driving force.”
Cannavaro asked, “What about the sharks? Where do they fit into all of this?”
“Maybe they are also affected,” Alexandros replied. “Maybe they are innocent bystanders. Maybe they just need more space. Maybe they want to escape the jellyfish. As far as we can tell, the jellies are venomous, and the waters are blooming with them.”
“It will be good to see J-Cap, soon,” Cannavaro said. J-Cap had also sent a picture of him and Frank, indicating that they were doing fine over on Dioptra.
Taro said, “We’ll have to wait a bit.”
J-Cap sent a text message to Taro, who read it to all. “All is well. Jellyfish everywhere. Maybe from the lake, right? Frank is mostly okay. I control this. Back soon.”
J-Cap changed air tanks and addressed Frank. “How are you holding up, Frank?”
“Why so-so? I thought you were better.”
“You don’t understand, J-Cap. We are dealing with a big problem, here. These sharks will be killed by the jellyfish, and soon. And it won’t be easy to save them. Should we undertake such a task?”
J-Cap answered, “I also realize these sharks are about to die. They cannot hide in the rocks like the other creatures until the infestation passes. Also, you may not know that I made a living researching sharks, back in Japan.”
“I made a name for myself looking for Goblin sharks. But lots of other ones, too.”
“Do you want to see them out of the Aquarium?” Frank asked.
“I do want to see them out. I don’t know if that would be the right thing, though.”
“But there is no time to work this out. We do this now or they die.”
“Yes, I want them out.” J-Cap made a move to take his regulator off, given that the air seemed to have cleared significantly.
“Don’t take it off,” Frank cautioned him. “I am not sure it’s totally clear.”
“Shall we go back?” J-Cap asked.
Copyright © 2015 by Elous Telma