This is the second part of a three-part story about the undersea city of Atlantis. The first part was posted here. This second part of the story tells what happens when Garrett Clark finds his brother, Ryan, missing in the night, and it features a giant poisonous, constricting sea snake.
That day, the brothers went hiking together. They took a long walk out along the cliff, and they watched the combers roll in. They spoke very little, and Garrett couldn’t help but feel that, even when he tried to make conversation, his brother seemed distant and distracted, as if his mind were elsewhere. Ryan’s remarks were short, often monosyllabic, and vague, and, when in a series, they left little room for good conversation.
But the atmosphere between the two became warmer when they returned. They sat down for a late lunch, filled their bellies, and then took the long drive to town, where they had a couple of beers at the bar, watched a playoff baseball game together, and talked about old times. It was long after dark when they returned, the days being short in autumn, and, shortly afterwards, they turned in to bed. Garrett took a book out of his suitcase, and he lay down in bed to read it. It was a good whodunit with a few secret passageways and a dead butler thrown in, and he soon found that a couple of hours had gone by. When he looked at the clock, it was eleven thirty at night. He turned off his bedside lamp, and he went to sleep.
Around three o’clock in the morning, Garret was woken by the same loud grinding sound that had woken him the night before. This time, he did not hesitate even a moment in bed. He got up straight away, and he hurried to the source of the sound.
There, in the corner of his brother’s living room, the old grandfather clock was grinding back into place. It had, apparently, moved into a secreted, recessed corner of the wall, and now it was returning to its original position.
A moment later, the clock reached the position that it was supposed to rest in, and there it stopped. With it, the grinding sound stopped too. Garrett walked to the clock, and he felt around it, and he felt around the wall for any lever, button, or mechanism that could make the clock move. He found nothing. He looked at the floor, where the grandfather clock had disappeared into. He saw no crevices or cracks that would indicate a secret chamber.
Garrett mused a moment, then he walked down the hall to his brother’s room. He knocked on the door, then, waiting a few moments, he knocked again. He knocked a third time, more forcefully. When no answer came, he cracked the door wide, and he called his brother’s name. When still no answer came, he turned on the lights. His brother was not in his bed.
Garrett walked through the house to ascertain whether Ryan was in any of the rooms. He was not. Garret looked out on the balcony, but Ryan wasn’t there.
So Garrett made himself a glass of ice water, and he got his book from his bedroom, and, sitting down on the leather couch in the living room, directly across from the clock, he made himself comfortable with the book and the water, crossed one leg over the other, and resolved to wait in that space through the morning.
It was nearly dawn, and Garrett’s eyes were growing heavy, when the sound came again. The grandfather clock vanished into the wall, and a set of spiral stone stairs, descending downwards, were revealed.
Up the steps, dripping wet, came his brother. His head was downcast, and his steps were heavy, as if he carried a sad, heavy psychological burden.
When Ryan reached the top of the stairs, he looked up. Seeing Garrett there, he gave a start, then he smiled grimly.
“Well,” he said. “You’ve found me out.”
Garrett gave a little laugh. “I’m not really sure what I’ve found.”
Ryan ascended the final few steps of the stone stair, and the grandfather clock ground into place behind him, hiding the secret passageway.
Ryan smiled. “I expect you’ll be wanting answers.”
Garrett considered a little. “I do. I’d love to know what you’re up to, but if it means prying into your personal life, then I won’t do it.”
“You’re a good man, Garrett. You always have been.”
Garrett waited. He decided to give his brother time to talk.
Then Ryan said, “I’ll tell you the truth, the whole truth, but I’m too tired now. I’ve got to sleep until noon. Let’s have lunch, then I’ll tell you what’s going on.”
“I’m exhausted too,” said Garrett.
Ryan smiled wanly, and he said, “Good night, Garrett. See you in the morning.”
“See you in the morning.”
A little after noon, both brothers rose. They made a pleasant lunch of ham sandwiches, potato chips, and dill pickles with a couple of soft drinks on ice. The sun was shining through the window, and the talked playoff baseball and other superficial things until the meal was nearly finished.
Then Ryan wiped his hands. “Another Coke?” he asked.
“I’ll have one, thanks,” said Garrett.
Ryan got up, and he took his plate to the sink, and he opened the fridge to get the Cokes out.
“So about last night,” Ryan said.
Garrett paused, and he let his brother think through what to say.
Ryan put some ice in the glasses, and he brought the two glasses to the living room’s marble island where they were sitting, and he set a can down next to Garrett and a can down for himself.
As they opened their sodas, Ryan said, “It’s a long story.”
“I’ve got time.”
Ryan nodded. “When I was working in marine biology all those years, it was a kind of marine biology, but it was also something more. Very early in my career, about twenty years ago, I knew that I wanted to dedicate my life to the water. Around this same time, experiments and research were being done on hermit crabs, specifically on how their gills worked—hermit crabs were of interest because they have gills, but they can breathe on land, so long as they’re kept moist.”
“Okay,” Garrett said, nodding.
Ryan pursed his lips. “Do you know exactly what gills are, Garrett?”
Garrett shrugged. “I mean, I guess so. Fish have them. Apparently hermit crabs have them. They’re what let an animal breathe underwater.”
“That’s right,” said Ryan. “The gill extracts oxygen from the water, puts the oxygen into your bloodstream, and then the gills excrete carbon dioxide. They’re like like part of an engine. Once the oxygen gets into an animal’s blood, then the processes are pretty much the same. The only difference between gills and a person’s respiratory system is the means of intaking the oxygen and exhaling the carbon dioxide.
“Well, people have a pretty good understanding of how gills work, and there has been speculation on putting gills into humans before, but it’s never worked. Fish, being coldblooded animals, need less oxygen than a warmblooded human, so theoretically, a human gill would need to be many times the size of a fish gill. Do you follow me so far?”
Garrett looked open-jawed at his brother. “Is this going where I think it’s going?”
“It is,” Ryan replied. “The long and short of it is this. Aqualung Industries thought that they’d found a means of extracting large amounts of oxygen from water efficiently and for allowing a human to express the carbon dioxide. The only catch was, the system was very big. About fifty gallons of water would need to pass in and out of the gills every minute in order for the human receive enough oxygen to survive. Such a large amount of water, naturally, could not be passed through a single respirator at the face. It would require a full body modification, in order to get oxygen to every part of the body.”
Garret raised his eyebrows.
“In this sense,” Ryan continued, “Such an artificial gill would not resemble a fish’s gill in size. The size would be closer in proportion to a fur: a total covering of the body. But there’s a kind of precedent for such an idea. Microscopic marine animals absorb enough oxygen through their bodies to breathe underwater. They do not have gills.”
“What are you saying?” Garrett asked, his curiosity getting the better of his patience.
“Fifteen years ago, I had the first and only surgery to transform myself into an warmblooded amphibian-like creature. The surgery was a success: I have lungs and gills.”
“What!” Garrett exclaimed.
Ryan pulled his shirt sleeve back. Beneath the sleeve of his shirt were a number of silvery scales. He flexed his arms, and the scales drew gently back, revealing blood-red colored, gill-like organs beneath. He relaxed his arms, and the scales fell back down.
“For fifteen years, I have been able to breathe underwater,” said Ryan. “During that time, I became a specialist in long-term, investigative diving reports. Whereas other divers are somewhat limited in the amount of time that they can spend underwater, I can spend days, even weeks underwater, provided that I have food and water. This has made me, as you might expect, a highly paid government consultant, because I am patient enough to spend hours, even weeks, waiting underwater to document fish behavior on a long-term basis. My reporting, filmmaking, and photography became some of the most sought after in the world, but, because I had no desire for fame, I published under a pseudonym, and, much like Bansky, I have been anonymous.”
“And with your money, you bought the company.”
“Yes,” said Ryan. “It’s a small company, but it allowed me to get free of the government contracts and to do my own thing. In particular, I made a discovery that I did not want to share. There are a people who live beneath the sea. They call themselves the Balticans. They live in only one place in the world—directly beneath this cliff. Beneath this cliff, there is a subterranean passageway, and it leads into an undersea cavern. There the Balticans live amongst sea spires of beautiful rock, long stems of water grass, and thirty foot tall statues that their ancestors made some seven hundred years ago. The Balticans have lived in this place, directly beneath us, for some two thousand years. Never have they been threatened until now.
“It was for the Balticans that I bought this house on this lonely cliff, and it was for them that I had that secret passage installed. Every night this week, I have gone down to visit them, and to check on their wellbeing. I had hoped that the threat to them would have vanished by the time that you came, but, unfortunately, it has not. Accordingly, last night, you heard the sound of our grandparents’ grandfather clock grinding away, and the sound that woke you was when I descended the stairs through the cliff to the water beneath. Then you heard the clock move again as I reappeared.”
“I see that very well,” Garrett said. “But what’s threatening these Balticans?”
“I giant, poisonous sea snake.”
“A sea snake!”
“But not like any other that I’ve ever seen,” Ryan continued, shaking his head. He took a sip from his Coke, and he rattled the ice in his glass. “For one thing, it’s huge. It’s seventy-five feet long, and it weighs two thousand pounds. It’s also unusual in that it’s both venomous and a constrictor. Additionally, it’s intelligent. It’s the smartest sea creature that I’ve ever seen.”
“What kind of snake is it?”
Ryan shook his head. He rattled the ice in his drink again. “Unclassified. I’ve looked through every reference book I’ve ever seen. The closest thing that I can get to a match in terms of human sightings of the snake is from the log of a sailor aboard a seventeenth century pirate ship. He said that one night his boat was attacked by, “A hydeous monster whom I sawe through thee glasse of a port-hole. Its eyes were like wagon wheels, and its head as wide as a ship-deck.” That was the only mention of it, that I know of. The snake apparently observed their ship, then it swam again to the depths of the sea.”
“But surely there must be more traces of it in literature. Such a creature doesn’t exist for millennia and never get recorded.”
“For one thing,” Ryan said, “I don’t think it comes up for air the way that other sea snakes do. In that sense, it may be more of an eel. For another thing, it rarely moves off the ocean floor, and its camouflage makes it blend in with the floor. Its size too, makes it seem like a bump in the sand, because it’s almost impossible to believe that this world could permit a hundred foot snake.”
Garrett shook his head. “So what’s the upshot of this?”
“The long and short of it is that when I got this place, I had the house built, then I built the secret passage beneath the clock myself. It leads to the undersea city and to the Balticans. They’ve lived there peacefully for millennia, but two weeks ago this terrible sea snake has discovered them, and it’s eating their population.”
“Well, this is incredible,” said Garrett, shaking his head. “I’m trying to pick my jaw up off the floor. Wait a minute while I start breathing again.”
Ryan smiled slightly.
Garrett continued, “So, I want to see the passageway, and I want to see you swimming with your gills. And let me know what you’re trying to do about the snake.”
“Well,” said Ryan, standing up, “In answer to the first couple of questions: Sure. In answer to the second: Right now, I’m stuck. I don’t know what to do about the snake.”
He walked to the grandfather clock, and, when he got close to it, he put his hand into his pocket and appeared to press a button on a fob, then the door ground open. He began to descend down the stone spiral stair.
“I knew there was something fishy about this living room,” Garrett said.
“You did?” asked Ryan, looking up in surprise.
“I don’t think anyone else noticed. But I always felt there was something fishy about it.”
“To me,” said Ryan, “It smells more strongly of the sea than anywhere else in the house. But I thought I was just imagining things or being hypersensitive.”
“No, you’re not. Lead the way.”
Ryan led them down the spiral staircase which wound through the center of the cliff. The staircase was narrow and steep, and Garrett had the impression that he was walking on the inside of a drill bit with stairs. The stair grew darker and darker, and its steps grew slicker and slicker as they pressed on. Garrett heard the faint sound of water lapping against stone, a sound that increased in volume as they descended. By the time that they reached the foot of the stairs, the two brothers had descended some seven hundred and fifty steps, and Garrett found himself enveloped in a cold, clammy atmosphere. The spiral stairs terminated in water, a dark, frigid water that washed up and down the steps.
When Ryan reached the end of the stairs, he simply stripped off his clothes, saying, “Avert your eyes, if you will, brother,” and left them hanging on a couple of nails that he must have hammered into the wall some years ago. But Garrett could not avert his eyes completely, and he risked a glance. His brother, beneath his clothes, was covered all over with silvery scales. The scales ranged from his wrists to his neckline and down again to his ankles, and they coruscated and glistered in the dull light cast by the bare bulbs that were strung along the walls.
Without another word, Ryan stepped down the stairs and into the water, and, as he did so, the scales on his body lifted up, like gill flaps do, and Garrett could see the fleshy, brightly colored gill beneath. The flaps of the gills raised and lowered themselves as the water surrounded them. Ryan slowly walked into the water, until it reached the level of his shoulders, then he looked over his shoulder at Garrett.
“If you’d like to watch a marine man swim, just hop into the water after me. My body acclimatizes readily to cold water, so I can swim as long as I’d like, but if you’re going to jump into this cold water, don’t stay too long in it.”
Garrett was at a loss for words, so he just murmured, “Okay,” and he watched as his brother submerged himself completely in the water. A moment later, the ripple made by Ryan’s head as it disappeared under the water was gone, and Garrett felt himself alone beneath the cliff. He quickly stripped off his clothes, hung them on the nails, and, stepping into the water, began the descent in. The water was cold. It was very, very cold, and Garrett found himself stopped just at knee length, wondering if he was going to freeze if he went in, but he decided to risk it, so down the stairs he went, and, with a gasp of breath at the iciness of the water, plunged below its surface.
Once below the surface of the water, Garrett discovered that the stairs let into an underwater chamber that was both inky with darkness and still as a tomb. He clutched on to the last step of the stairwell like he used to do with a ladder in a pool, and he looked through the stygian depths for his brother. At first, he could not see Ryan. Then, coming out of the gloom, his brother’s silvery, fishlike form appeared, swimming easily and luxuriously through the dark, cold water. The gills that covered his body were respirating, and the scales were gently rising and falling with the flow of the water over them.
Garrett popped his head above the surface for a moment for a breath of air, then he slipped back down again. His brother was swimming away now, the silvery scales glistering. Then his brother swam downwards, into the blackness of the water, and he was lost for sight. Garrett remained there a few moments longer, looking for Ryan, but the cold soon overcame him, and Garrett pulled himself out of the frigid water and onto the stone stairs. He dried himself with his cotton undershirt, then he put on his wool sweater first, to keep the heat in at his chest, then he dried off his legs and feet with his undershirt, and he put on his underwear and pants again. He was soon feeling much better, and he resolved to sit down and wait on the stairs for his brother. He waited for four or five minutes, taking some time to dry his feet, and to put on his socks and shoes again, then his brother resurfaced, and climbed up the steps.
“Well, what did you think?” asked Ryan.
“Incredible,” said Garrett. “Absolutely incredible.”
“You’ll have to keep my secret for me,” said Ryan. “It’s not something I want to spread about. The moment people knew of a marine man, I’d start having to do interviews, and I’d become the most famous person on the planet. I’ve never much desired being famous.”
“No, me neither,” said Garrett, smiling.
“I tell you though,” said Ryan energetically, “Swimming underwater like that just makes me feel whole again. There’s really nothing I like better these days than a good swim in cold water. I have a suspicion that the extra oxygen’s good for my heart and mind. I always feel refreshed and reinvigorated afterwards. Well, I’ll just dry myself, and we’ll head on up.”
“Sure,” said Garrett. “Take your time. How far down are the Baltican people?”
“About a thousand feet further down. It takes me a good fifteen minutes to swim down and meet them.”
“And where does the snake live?”
“Don’t know. I’ve only actually seen it once. Usually, I just arrive in time to see the devastation it’s caused. The time I saw it, it was swimming far too fast for me to follow.”
“So you couldn’t follow it?”
“It’d be like asking a caveman to chase a mountain lion,” Ryan said, drying himself off. “It’s too quick and too wily for me. All set?”
“Yes.” Garrett rose, and the two brothers started ascending the stairs again. “Are you going down again tonight?”
“I will,” said Ryan. “I hope you don’t mind, now that you know my secret. I may spend the whole night down there.”
“I guess now that I know that you’re down there I just worry about you getting bit or constricted.”
Ryan laughed grimly, “So do I.”
They climbed the rest of the way up in silence, then spent the afternoon chatting and talking about various dives that Ryan had been on. Ryan, who’d been reticent earlier about sharing in his adventures around the world, now opened up, bright as a blooming flower, and he started to share about the dives that he’d done in Finland, Mauritius, Scotland, the Philippines, and South Africa. He shared how, after a few years of diving during daylight hours and making careful efforts to avoided being spotted by SCUBA divers, he soon switched to diving almost exclusively at night, because his abilities underwater made diving safe for him at night and the environment there was more lonesome and secure.
They talked a while about the snake as well, and about the Balticans, and Garrett professed an interest in helping in whatever way that he could.
“I’m a certified diver,” Garrett said.
Ryan shook his head. “It’s too deep. The world record dive’s about eleven hundred feet deep, and most divers spend their time no more than a hundred or so feet down. You’re probably at the recreational diver level?”
“I am. I haven’t dived in years.”
“So the depth of the Balticans is about ten times as far as most recreational divers go. They live on a bleak, still plain, amidst the ruins of the numerous ships and trawlers that, many years ago, foundered and sank upon the rough rocks that lie along this cliffside, and which posed a hazard, particularly in the days before light houses. They have a population of about two hundred individuals, and, much like other creatures that exist in deep waters, they are particularly small. They are, I believe, related to the homo sapien, but they must have adapted differently, possibly having been outcompeted eons ago, or hunted to near extinction by our distant ancestors, and they subsequently—I suspect—took to living in sea caves for sustenance and safety, and then, very gradually, descending into the water.”
“But you don’t have verification for any of this?”
“No, certainly not. The species hasn’t been formally discovered. You and I are the only ones to know about the Balticans, and I’m the only one to have seen them. They are a diffident, unforthcoming folk, and I do not think that they wish to be bothered by modern science. For all that, they are marvelously intelligent. They use tools, as humans do, and they have the power of invention. They are, I suspect, just as smart as any human being. They respirate much like I do, that is, they have gills over their entire bodies. I believe that one fundamental difference between the Balticans and the human beings is that they are exothermic, and they show a relatively reptilian indifference toward their young. They are, however, monogamous, and I believe that, just like any other creature on this Earth of ours, they are very much deserving of good care and consideration.”
“And now they’re under attack.”