The mermaids listened intently as Tornus described the mysterious chamber.
“We have to go inside.” Amphisamytha declared.
“You are brash, sister.” Simnia replied. “We barely know this reef. We have yet to face the predators that must certainly surround it. The tunnel could lead anywhere.”
“But what if there are more carvings within? Do we not deserve to learn as much as we can about this place?”
“I thought that we are only resting here, hunting, growing strong, before returning to the drift? Why should we risk our safety without cause?” Luidia, too, was apprehensive.
“Sisters, that this reef was once home to our kin is clear. The tunnel was placed there, hidden, sealed such that only our kind could enter.” Janthina spoke. “The reef is ours. The tunnel is ours. We owe it to ourselves to see what our kin left behind. Left for us.”
“I agree,” Amphisamytha swam across the circle to float by her sister. “We have learned all we can from the carvings on our chamber walls, yet we still don’t know what happened to our kin or where they went.”
“That tunnel is our right.” Freyella joined her two sisters. “We must find out what secrets it holds.”
“This is foolishness!” Simnia swam in circles around the group, churning up the bottom and casting a cloud of sediment into the water column. “We have wasted enough time here, playing as if we had found a home. You have all grown fat and lazy in your caverns. Perhaps that is what happened to the last occupants, they became content. They became complacent. They became prey.”
“That’s enough, Simnia.” At last, Tornus rejoined the conversation. “I agree, there is potential for great danger within the tunnel. We do not know where it goes. We do not know if it is a trap. But we do know that it was made by others of our kind. You have not gazed into the void,” Tornus stared at Simnia and Luidia, her eyes narrowing to barely perceptible slits, constricting her field of view to a single target, a predator’s gaze. Simnia shook, visibly. “Nor you.” She turned the same piercing stare on Janthina and her allies. “It calls to you. You cannot look within it and resist the urge to dive.”
“So we go?” Janthina whispered, unnerved by Tornus.
“I will go. You will join me, Janthina. Together we will see what lies at the end of the tunnel. ”
“But the drift?” Luidia asked.
“If and when we rejoin the drift, I want to know where we’re going. If the tunnel has clues that lead to our kin, we must find them. Agreed?”
“I agree.” said Simnia.
“As do we.” Amphisamytha and Freyella added in unison.
From all around, the rest of the mermaids voiced their approval.
“Very well. Janthina, are you ready?”
Janthina didn’t respond. She was already far from the circle, waiting for Tornus by the gaping hole that led deep into the heart of the reef.
Tornus met her at the opening to the void.
“I didn’t think it would be so dark. How deep does it?” Janthina asked.
“I don’t know. It looks like it descends below the seafloor, deeper than the bottom of the reef.”
“Do you think it goes through the seamount? Could this take us all the way out past the ledge?”
“I do not know, Janthina, that is what we must discover.”
Tornus swam forward, then paused. She was suddenly overcome with the desire to return to the seafloor, to float just above the group, watching over them.
“What is it, sister?”
“The tunnel, it calls to me, but something is holding me back. I feel like my place is out there,” she gestured back out of the cavern, “not down here.”
Janthina stared into the tunnel. Tornus’s apprehension was alien to her. She wanted nothing more than to plunge into the abyss, to find answers to questions she was not even sure she had asked. She grabbed Tornus by the arm.
“It’s time to go!”
She dove down, pulling her sister with her, into the great chasm. Tornus resisted, but her short, stocky tail was no match for Janthina’s long, graceful fluke. She dragged Tornus over the threshold into perfect darkness. Tornus surrendered to the plunge.
They swam for what seemed like hours, down into the deepest recesses of the reef. Like the cavern floor, the walls polished smooth, so smooth that nothing could settle on them, nothing could grow. Without coral, barnacles, or any of the myriad creatures that foul the jagged rocks, there was no way to know how long this tunnel had been there.
Janthina felt an unfamiliar tingle in her swim bladder as the water pressed in, squeezing her pliable body; they were deep, now, deeper than the floor of the reef, deeper than she had ever been. The pressing water, usually a comfort, left her uneasy, like the too tight grasp of a remora clinging to her side. Something primal echoed within her, filling her thoughts with the unwavering certainty that there was greater danger in holding air in her swim bladder than releasing the last of her buoyancy at such depths. She concentrated and collapsed the air-filled cavity within her abdomen. She fell into the abyss.
Tornus follow suite, always slightly above and behind.
Ahead, Janthina saw a glimmer. No, she thought, that’s not possible. no light could penetrate this deep. But, as she pushed further, the light grew brighter. Janthina sped up, leaving Tornus behind, confused. The light grew closer. It shimmered, wafting back and forth like the tendrils of a living thing. Unlike the powerful beams that stopped at the sunbreak, this light was cold. It emanated from below, pale and ghostly.
The tunnel ended abruptly and Janthina burst into a massive sub-sea cavern. For a moment she was blind. Her eyes, wide from swimming through the darkness, were unprepared for the intense, organic light.
As she slowly adjusted to the unfamiliar illumination, Janthina stared in awe. Every crack and crevice of the great, spherical cavern glowed with the luminescence of a million microscopic creatures. It pierced the darkness, brighter than the light above the sunbreak. The cavern was alive. It was alive with light.
Tornus finally joined her. They stared, speechless.
Janthina broke from the reverie, and cast her gaze down to the floor of the glowing cavern. A great mass of algae, dead but preserved, marked the center of the great hall. The floor was covered in the most exquisite carvings she had yet seen. They depicted scenes both familiar and alien. Two mermaids carved an entrance to their chamber. A circle of her kin teased a flat fish. On the far wall, mermaids swam around the reef, examining holes while a few lone guardians looked on. Janthina gasped. The images weren’t just familiar, they were nearly identical to their own experience.
As she moved around the circle, the theme of the images changed. Mermaids with long spears, jagged like the spines of a skate, hunted pilot whales through the open ocean. Mermaids breached the sea, rising above the sunbreak, rising out of the nurturing waters. A mermaid wrestled with a strange, many armed creature, not a squid or an octopus, but something different.
The mermaids changed as they spiralled towards the center. In one wedge of the gigantic mural, the tribe divided. One by one, mermaids swam away, disappearing from the carvings. Others stayed. They were different. Their tiny, waifish frames became bulky. Narrow shoulders became broad and strong. They looked nothing like the small clan,far above, cowering below the sunbreak. They looked like warriors.
The images made no sense. Are these sisters from a different tribe? Are they kin? As Janthina continued around the circle, the carvings became cryptic. New mermaids appeared, as different from the others as the others were to Janthina. They gathered. They formed pairs. They vanished. The circle began again, with a sisterhood of tiny mermaids, floating through the drift, finding the reef.
Janthina was back where she began. Tornus followed her around the circle, drawing her own interpretation of the great mural. She reached forward, and raised her sister’s brow to her own.
“What do you make of this?” Tornus whispered, sensing the need for quiet within this chamber.
“I don’t know. It seems to tell our story, but the story makes no sense. Where do these new mermaids come from? Where did the old mermaids go?”
“Perhaps it is telling us that this is a place of permanence. That those who leave vanish, those who stay become strong. Look at these hunters, they are strong. See how even those that resemble ourselves can challenge the pilot whales? Perhaps that is what we must do.”
“But they are not of us. Those who are of us hunt, then leave. Perhaps we are being called to move on, to leave before these crueler creatures return.”
“I do not think they are cruel. Perhaps this shows us two paths, both equal. Perhaps we are meant to decide.”
“Decide to stay as a clan or leave alone? I can see no safety in solitude. Alone we are weakest of all.”
“Then perhaps that is the message.”
They found themselves resting against the large mat of algae in the center. It was coarse, aged, and brittle. As Janthina brushed against it, it fell away.
“Look, sister,” Tornus began, “There is something beneath.”
Excitedly, Janthina pulled away the remaining detritus. She drifted backwards, shocked.
Two skeletons lay, side by side, in a depression carved to cradle them. They were mermaids, but they were enormous. The largest, nearly twice Janthina’s length, but the proportions were all wrong. Her fingers stretched out, nearly half again the length of her long, slender forearm, with talons to match. Her skull rested on a long and densely armored spine. Vertebrae linked together like chains connected to an anchor. Massive ridges marked the position where bands of muscled were once attached. Rays emerged from a fragile pelvic girdle, forming stiff fins built to glide through the water. The fluke was whole, rigid, and symmetric, like the powerful blade of a tuna.
The other skeleton was wholly unlike the first. Where one was slender and long, the other was short, stocky, and broad. Her shoulders were nearly three times the width of her companion’s, yet she was only slightly longer than Janthina, half the length of the other. Her bones were dense, solid, thicker than her partners’. Her pelvic fins were massive and her fluke cut a wide swath, like a scimitar, one edge longer than the other. In her small hands, she grasped a long spear, the same spear in the murals surrounding them. Janthina could not believe that both skeletons were mermaids or that either could be her kin.
“They are partners.” Tornus said, definitively. “I do not think that they are sisters.”
Janthina looked at her sister, puzzled. “How do you mean? We are all sisters.”
“Perhaps. But perhaps not. We drifted together, as kin. We grew together, as kin. But we cannot all be kin, not in our blood.”
“I don’t understand. How can you know that?”
“In our drifting, we have seen mother grey whales weaning calves. We have seen scalloped hammerheads birth their children. We have seen bull sperm whales join with their cows. We have seen jawfish carry offspring in their mouths. Even the great swarms of krill carry eggs beneath their carapaces. Have we ever seen the young without the old?”
“No, sister. We have not.”
“Then where are the old among us? These bodies prove they must exist.”
“I have no memory of the old among us.”
“Nor do I. In the drift, we were alone.”
“We came from the drift.” Janthina stretched her memories back as far as they would go, but she could see nothing before the drift. “At least, I think we did. What could come before?”
“I wonder,” Janthina looked back at the bodies. “Is one the bull and one the cow?”
“I do not know.” Tornus reached down and lifted the long, elegant spear from its resting place.
If you can’t wait until this novel is finished, check out some of my other maritime science fiction adventures.