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CHAPTER FIVE: THE ASCENT
What on Earth am I still doing out here? Malcolm thought to himself, staring out at the vast expanse of glittering stars.
He heaved a sigh, casting a glance around once more for Claude, or anyone else who might take an issue with his being on deck. As if star-gazing was a crime. Seeing no one, Malcolm nestled back down on the long bench he’d found on the starboard side of the ship.
I should go inside. It’s got to be past midnight by now. And those lab samples will be done at six am sharp.
And he was going to have to face Molly Parker tomorrow. They were partners in the saltwater lab for this trip. Malcolm groaned, thinking of their uncomfortable encounter a few hours ago. Molly was older than him by a year or two, and Malcolm had assumed she was like the other two female grad students in thinking that he was “just a kid”.
But that assumption had quickly been proved false. He’d been sitting on one of the rec room’s battered sofas, watching Jaws with his fellow grad students. Lindsey and Sameera had been on one couch, he and Molly on the other. It was a large sofa, and there was plenty of room for both of them, so he had been mostly unaware of her presence.
Until the scene in the film when the crew of the Orca sees the killer shark for the first time. Malcolm had been prepared for the sight of the robotic great white, but utterly unprepared for the soft weight of Molly’s head on his shoulder. Or the feeling of her fingers coming to rest, butterfly soft, on his thigh.
Startled, Malcolm had jolted as if he’d been electrified, upending a bowl of popcorn over both of them in the process. Then, mortified, he’d stumbled off the couch, his long legs moving in a jerky, puppet-like fashion.
From the other sofa, Lindsey and Sameera had collapsed in fits of giggles at his slapstick performance. Molly’s eyes were filled with reproach. She’d hurriedly brushed the popcorn off her jeans and left the rec room.
“Way to go, Romeo,” Lindsey scoffed, still fighting back laughter.
“Hey! Be nice,” Sameera said, trying to soothe any potential conflict. She turned to Malcolm. “Really, we’re sorry for laughing. But you looked like you sat on a cactus!”
Malcolm’s cheeks burned with embarrassment. He stammered something about getting some air, and headed towards the upper deck, the opposite way as Molly. While he trudged step after step, the echoing voices of Lindsey and Sameera followed him.
“Shit. I feel terrible. We shouldn’t have laughed.”
“Whatever. It’s not our fault that Ginger can’t figure out when a girl has a crush on him. What does Molly even see in that kid?”
“Aww…I think he’s sweet,” Sameera replied. Somehow, her defending him almost hurt worse than Lindsey’s deliberately spiteful words.
But there was no getting around it. He would have to face Molly Parker in just a few short hours. With a groan at how much work he had to get done tomorrow, Malcolm sat up on the bench. Then he paused, looking once more towards at the glittering spectacle of the heavens above him.
Just a little longer. How could he go inside? It was like the heavens themselves had split open and revealed themselves to him. The brilliant white and pink band of the Milky Way stretched like a lazy tendril across the sky. Next to it, all other stars paled in significance, but Malcolm could still make out the bold bright arc of the Southern Cross.
Completely different stars than at home. But for Malcolm, this wasn’t entirely unusual. Some of his earliest memories had been of stacked cardboard cartons, and dusty moving vans that arrived at regular intervals to cart their belongings from one Navy base to another. By the time he was twelve, Malcolm had attended more than seven schools. By the time he graduated high school, he’d become an expert at not letting himself get close to anyone except his younger sister, Jo.
It was just easier that way. Easier to not bother making friends that he would have to leave again in six or eight or twelve months. To not lie and make false promises about keeping in touch, when both parties knew that there was no point. Instead, Malcolm focused his attention on his books. On his schoolwork. And on the water.
One major perk of his mother being a Commander in the U.S. Navy was that Malcolm’s family was almost always stationed near the coast. From his earliest days, the ocean had fascinated him. Its ever-changing moods. The secrets hidden away beneath its depths. The way it could lap at the shore like a playful puppy one hour, only to crash into the rocks with brutal force the next. While other boys had spent their hours playing football or sneaking cigarettes, Malcolm more often found himself splashing around in tidepools, examining the various forms of life.
Vibrant blue starfish. Wickedly barbed purple sea urchins. He’d even found an octopus once, shyly tucked into the hollow of a large conch shell. It spat black ink at him and dashed off for a safer place to hide. Something about those tiny ecosystems–whole worlds that existed for only a few short hours in between the tides–fascinated him.
Unlike the majority of his classmates, who were obsessed with surfing and sport-fishing, Malcolm felt no need to conquer the sea. And unlike his mother–and later Jo when she enlisted at eighteen–he didn’t see the ocean as a military tool to be wielded against one’s enemies.
No, for Malcolm, the sea represented one of the only constants in his life. He’d watched the sun sink into the horizon over the waters of Belize. He’d seen it break across the sky while standing on the pink-tinged sands of the Caribbean.
Even now, aboard the cramped and uncomfortable Surveyor, Malcolm couldn’t think of a single place he’d rather be. On the wooden bench, Malcolm folded his hands behind his hand and took a deep, calming breath.
Clad only in a thin T-shirt and board shorts, the night air felt blessedly cool on his skin. The constant rocking of the ship was less pronounced up here, and Malcolm felt his earlier headache subsiding. His eyes fluttered shut, but the blazing path of stars still winked beneath his closed lids.
Like a waterfall of diamonds, he thought before he fell asleep.
As the highest-ranking and most seasoned warrior, Syra usually swam at the head of her warriors, her keen black eyes on the lookout for any danger. But not tonight. Tonight her sisters-in-arms swam around her in a protective phalanx, their krakanas poised and ready. Ceremonial tradition dictated that they escort her to the Barrier.
Normally, the Sereen never ventured this high, except for the unlucky scouts who were sent at intervals to scan the waters for offerings. So many of these females perished–eaten by sharks, or attacked by schools of ravenous tuna–that the expeditions had been limited to only three of four times a year.
A miracle, really, that this offering had been found in time to appease the restless gods. Syra took the human male’s timely arrival as a sign, a message that her time had come to take her place in the ancient ritual. And to avenge her mother.
Surrounded by her warriors, Syra swam upwards. The others rotated their bioluminescent flashes, creating a symphony of flickering light that sent a clear signal to any other forms of life who might be swimming in the vicinity.
These are our waters tonight. Do not trespass.
At some unknowable sign, some intangible change in the biological chemistry of the water, the warriors came to a halt. This was the Barrier. They could all sense it. The border between the silent darkness of their world, and the sunlit dangers of the Realm Above. From here, Syra must venture alone.
“May the gods send strength to you, my leader,” Mara said, pressing a hand to her forehead.
Regally, Syra nodded her head, then extended the arm that clutched her shark’s-jaw krakana. “In case I do not return. May it always strike true.”
This too was part of the tradition. Even though Syra’s second-in-command was not of her bloodline, she would be responsible for leading the hunters, should Syra fail to return.
Should she be caught, and butchered by the humans. Just like her mother.
Mara bowed deeply, and accepted the krakana on outstretched limbs. “I will watch over it, until your safe return.”
The sacred vows exchanged, Syra swam away from her comrades, up towards the surface. There were no tearful goodbyes, no pleading for her to stay. Everyone knew their duty. Syra most of all.
The magic required to undergo the transformation was as old as the Sereen themselves. Ancient legends told of groups of females as many as twenty strong–all capable of changing form to lure young men down beneath the waves as offerings to the ever-hungry gods. But now, there was only Syra.
In a season or two, she would reach full maturity, and be ready to begin reproducing. Appropriate males were already being selected based on their virility. Her mother had died so young, after only one breeding season. It was of the utmost importance that her bloodline continue.
But first, Syra must pass this test. She must lure the human down into the waters. And drown him.
For only the second time in her life, Syra felt the immense, crushing pressures of the deep ocean loosen their grip on her body. For many of the creatures that lived in her environment, an ascent to the surface would be a death sentence. But the Sereen were well equipped to withstand a variety of conditions, and Syra’s lungs expanded slowly to compensate for the difference in pressure.
Her skin underwent a change as well, losing its scaly silver lustre and becoming smooth and golden-tan. This was the first part of the transformation, and Syra eyed her changed limbs in curiosity and revulsion. The fingers were shorter, with rounded nails instead of the pointed claws that Syra used to snatch up smaller prey.
Useless. However do the humans manage to survive? She felt the straight, smooth ridges that had replaced her usual needle-sharp fangs. They have no teeth to speak of, either. Without these weapons, and absent her krakana–which was as much a part of her as her own tail fins–Syra felt naked.
The steadily brightening waters only added to her unease. For most of its residents, the ocean would appear as black as ever, but Syra’s enormous eyes, built for piercing through total darkness, were already beginning to ache from the light of the moon.
But then the next step of her transition began, and Syra’s eyes shrank back into her face, their solid black color gradually replaced by irises of vivid purple, rimmed with white. For the first time since beginning her long journey, Syra paused her upward swimming–alarmed as her keen night vision faded, leaving her nearly blind in the churning ocean waves.
She was near the surface now. She just needed to go a little farther.
A few struggling moments later, Syra’s head broke through the waves. Her sensory tendrils were gone, replaced by flowing hair of the darkest black–the color of the waters of the Abyss. Her tail was intact, for the most part, though its dull purple undertones had brightened to the same bright purple as her eyes. But at least these eyes were designed to see above water, and she looked around at the surface, blinking in the light of the moon.
The light. Syra held one hand over her brow to block out the glow. Besides the half-moon, the sky was alight with stars. It was more light than Syra had ever seen in her life. It would take a hundred thousand teora to compete with this radiant brilliance. For a minute, she bobbed with her head above the water, transfixed by the beauty of the Realm Above.
Her body felt different, heavier in places than it had before. Where before there had only been sleek, well-trained muscle, now her upper body was curved and supple. At least my gills and tail fins are unchanged. As long as I remain mostly submerged, I will be able to swim to safety. But if she were to leave the water entirely–no, that must not be allowed to happen.
Syra lifted an arm, watching the way the drops of seawater sparkled under the stars. Then, she realized that hunting on the surface presented her with a significant disadvantage. With all this light, her prey would be able to see her coming before she got close enough to strike a killing blow.
Not that it mattered. Her most deadly weapon didn’t require close contact. But losing the ability of surprise only intensified the feeling of dread that had been building in Syra for hours. There is a touch of destiny on the seas tonight. Premonition tingled up her spine, and she flashed blue streaks up her bioluminescent ridges.
Except–nothing actually happened. Reaching around with one hand, Syra felt along her base of her spine, running carefully up and down. Her bioluminescent ridges were gone. They must have disappeared in the transformation.
Syra clamped down on the panic that threatened to rise in her veins. Fear was unacceptable. She had known the risks when she accepted the honor of venturing to the Realm Above. She turned in the water, peering out with her surface-adapted eyes.
Still, she spotted the vessel easily. A long, hulking shadow, silhouetted against the bright sky. Her prey lay within. Syra dove beneath the waters, carefully not to make a splash as she kicked her tail powerfully, headed towards the ship.
An offering. It could mean the difference between survival and destruction for her people. The last time the Sereen had failed to deliver a sacrifice in time to appease the rage of the gods, the results had nearly meant their extinction.
Syra’s head felt strangely heavy as she broke the surface once more, weighted down by the strange black hair that swirled around her.
Finally, she was near enough to the vessel to begin summoning her prey.
The Sereen mainly communicated through clicks, flickers, and silent hand signals. But Syra’s transformation had shifted the arrangement of her vocal cords, allowing her to make more complex sounds.
Looking out towards the silently floating boat, Syra’s violet eyes narrowed with purpose.
She began to sing.