“Okay, okay, so the story goes, this king sent his daughter over the sea to a distant land to secure an alliance with a country that was formerly their enemy. And with her, he sent gifts and such.”
“Yeah, I guess. I don’t know if these people did dowries. Anyway, the gifts included the usual stuff you’d expect, precious metals and precious stones, coins, and jewels. And the one big gift, the real gift, you might say. A crown made for the prince, and set with a very special one-of-a-kind jewel. A jewel that was sent by the heavens. A jewel that could shine without sunlight. But this king had angered the gods, so they ordered the sea fairies to destroy the ship and drown the king’s daughter—“
I swept my gaze across the cabin as I tapped the fingers of my left hand on the side of my console.
I wanted to hear the story again. Dalil had planned to tell it the night before, but after all the final preparations, triple-checking that the sub was already loaded with every single thing we would need on the excursion, down to the last spare stylus, we were all too tired.
But now, after a few hours of diving deeper and deeper, and having nothing to do but watch as every fish we encountered got startled and dart away, we were ready for one of his campfire stories.
“So the gods order the sea fairies to wreck the ship,” Dalil continued. “I mean tear it apart until nothing is left, not even a single plank for the princess to grab onto to survive. But here’s the thing, the thing that the king didn’t know and the gods didn’t know—because they never paid attention to the girl. She was great friends with the fairies of the sea. She loved the beaches of her kingdom. And she loved the sea. And she would bring the fairies gifts from the gifts she received, and gifts that she had made herself, and she learned their language. So even though she didn’t ask them to save her, they saved her.”
“This story is about to take a turn, isn’t it?”
I sighed, as silently as I could. Sometimes I found Flynn’s interruptions amusing. Right now, I just wanted the story. But Dalil, as usual, didn’t miss a beat.
“Bingo. The fairies wrecked the ship, leaving nothing but splinters behind, but they carried the princess on stormy waves, keeping her hidden from the gods who were watching from above, and keeping her from drowning. They swept her onto the shore of a deserted island. There they hid the princess for a long time, so long that she forgot she was a princess.”
“She became a pirate, didn’t she?”
“No.” Dalil paused. “She became a monkey.”
“That’s how they hid her at first. They told her to disguise herself like a monkey, attach brown moss to her skin for fur, and tie some curling vines around her waist to make it look like she had a tail. That kind of thing. The princess was small and the gods didn’t really pay attention, so this worked for a while. She even learned to climb the trees and jump from branch to branch from the real monkeys in the island’s jungle.”
“The king must have searched for his daughter,” Preeti chimed in. Funny, I thought it would be a burden to have a student researcher on our excursion, but I found myself having more patience for her interruptions. I glanced over at her. She was peering at the navigation screen.
“He did. And the prince of the other country did too. They couldn’t find the wreck of the ship. The sea fairies had done too good a job destroying it. And they didn’t know there was an island near the lost ship’s route, because that part of the sea was not as well-mapped as it is now.”
Flynn flicked a switch and pressed a few commands on his screen. He called out a course correction, and then asked, “So…they never found her? Did she ever find a way off the island and go home?”
“After searching for a year and a day, the king declared that the sea had taken his daughter. He mourned her, and her country mourned her. But the prince who was to be her betrothed kept searching. And after another four years, fending off his family’s urging to marry someone else, he too abandoned the search, and said farewell to the lost princess.”
“And then? What happened to the princess? She lived and died on that island, didn’t she?”
I heard a low groan escape the throat of our pilot, Maya. I glanced over and saw her shake her head. She usually liked Dalil’s stories. But the ones with princesses, not so much.
“Well, here’s the thing,” Dalil said, turning away from his screen. “The prince and the princess were reunited one time. But neither of them knew it. See, during the time that the prince was searching for the princess, the gods had discovered the sea fairies’ ruse. And they were furious. They would have killed all the sea fairies if they didn’t need the fairies to keep the seas from churning as they had in the first epoch of their creation. So instead they punished the beautiful fairies by making them all but invisible.”
“Doesn’t seem like such a bad punishment.”
“The gods also shrunk them down, and they kept shrinking them until they could not be seen by the humans they loved so much. They had to abandon the humans or abandon the sea. They were too small to hold onto both. So they let go of the human world.”
“They’re probably better off,” Maya said with a smirk. “We’re not that great.”
My shoulders shook in a silent chuckle.
“Well, they weren’t better off. They were so sad that they began to turn invisible, from top to bottom, until all that remained was their feet, their glittering slippers.”
“And that’s how the paramecium came to be. That’s what parameciums are,” Dalil said, beaming. “Fairy footwear.”
Dalil lightly whacked the back of Flynn’s head. “Did you just develop an accent all of a sudden?”
“Never mind,” Flynn said.
“So, these ancient peoples were aware of the existence of microscopic single-celled organisms living in the sea?” I asked, glancing over at our resident archaeologist-slash-explorer.
Dalil pointed a finger up. “Funny you should mention it, Captain. I think the whole ‘fairies shrinking and only their slippers being visible’ thing is a more modern revision to the story.”
“A paramecium is shaped like a slipper,” Preeti explained, as if she hadn’t been going on all week about how she hoped the story suggested a new species of paramecium, along with other critters, all of which she would be the first to catalog.
“We’re not going anywhere as deep as the deepest dive humans have made,” I said, hoping to temper our young researcher’s excitement.
None of us had wanted to tell her that she probably wouldn’t see anything new on any of our excursions. At first that was because we didn’t want to lose an important source of funding provided by those who wanted her on our…project. But very soon after meeting her, it was because we didn’t want to disappoint her. It was true that no humans had gone as deep as we were going in that particular part of the sea—as far as we knew. But there was nothing unusual or atypical about that part of the sea. No ships mysteriously disappeared. No strange storms appeared out of nowhere. Aside from that one arcane myth that Dalili happened to know about, there were no myths or legends about the place.
The little island where we had set up our base camp was the same island that starred in Dalil’s myth, but these days it was on all the maps, and was inhabited by a small population of people descended from settlers from a few centuries past, and a small rotation of seasoned travelers.
The submersible began to vibrate, slightly at first, and then more intensely.
“Okay, everyone,” I said, bringing multiple views onto my screen: engine status, navigation, front and back camera views, and crew vital signs. “Here we go. We’re declining. If you feel discomfort, that’s normal, but if it turns into pain, don’t be a martyr. Say something.”
A chorus of “ay, Captain” responded, as everyone who wasn’t already paying direct attention to their stations resumed their stations.
“Wait,” Maya said, as she smoothed us down in an arcing descent. “You said something about the prince and princess reuniting. What was that about?”
Dalil said nothing as he brought up the views from the sub’s three ventral scopes. “Oh, right. Well, after dealing with the fairies, the gods dealt with the princess. They tossed her in the ocean. But they did show some small, very small—almost maybe not at all—bit of mercy. Instead of letting her drown, they transformed her in a crab so that she could live in the sea with the fairies.”
“Well that’s kind of sweet,” Preeti said. I was facing away from her, but I could hear a smile in her voice.
“And one time, she surfaced and watched the prince when he was out on the sea searching for her. She heard him speaking to her and telling her he was coming to find her. She still had her human voice, so she spoke to him and told him that she was truly lost. She said she was a ghost now, and she thanked him for searching for her, but told him that she would be moving on, and so should he. Then she submerged deep into the sea.”
If I didn’t already consider Dalil a storyteller with masterful timing, I definitely did after that moment. A unique alarm began to sound. A chirp that we had all heard before but hadn’t really hoped we would hear on any of our excursions.
The Nimasterion detector.
“Is that a false alarm?” I asked, frowning as I brought up the details of the detector’s readings going back over the past five minutes, then zooming out to the past hour.
Maya checked the same readings I was checking. “Not that I can see.” In addition to being captain and pilot, respectively, Maya and I were the ship’s engineers. But we didn’t know word one about the detector. “It’s a true detection.”
“Nimasterion” was the word that Dalil made up to call that one-of-a-kind jewel on the crown that was supposed to be in the treasure that we had set out to find. Before the rest of us came onboard the project, Dalil had been working with a team who was trying to identify the jewel in the story. They thought it might be some kind of meteorite based on some of the details of that story. A jewel that fell from the heavens. And if it could shine at night that suggested it was radiating visible light, and maybe radiating some not-so-visible stuff. Somehow, they calculated and extrapolated and made educated guesses about what the properties of the radiation were, again based only on the myth. And they built a detector. They got permission to test their detector on various museum specimens with different radiation profiles, hoping that one of those profiles matched the radiation that the Nimasterion would emit.
I checked the calibration logs for the detector. There was nothing off there either.
“Well, there’s something interesting down there at least,” I said. I don’t know that I’d ever heard about people recovering space rocks from the ocean. I could look it up on my console, but I didn’t want any distractions during this part of our descent.
And if I thought Dalil’s timing was on point, I should have given myself some of that credit.
Because it was right then that the submersible jerked. We were all thrown to the left.
Multiple alarms joined the chirping of the Nim detector.
I glanced over at Maya. Without looking away from her screen, she said, “Wasn’t me.”
She got the sub back in position.
“Did we hit something?” Preeti asked.
“There shouldn’t be anything here to hit,” Flynn said. He switched between the various cameras arrayed around the submersible. “What the heck? That’s not supposed to be there.”
Camera 19 was obstructed.
I brought up the schematic of the sub that showed where the cameras were placed. And just as I saw where Camera 19 was, the still-descending submersible was rocked again.
“I saw movement!” Flynn said.
Dalil peered out one of the porthole windows. “You’re right. I think we might have some company.”
“Is it friendly?” Preeti asked. She was trying to zoom in one of the cameras. “I think I see spines.”
“That can’t be friendly,” Maya said.
And we were proving to be a group with impeccable timing, because right as Maya spoke, the sub was smacked again by something. We could all hear it. Something hard hit us on the port side.
“All right, time to go faster and get away from our new acquaintance.” Maya throttled the engines up.
“If we can look at it from a safe distance that would be great,” Preeti said.
“Whatever it is, I hope it’s not fast.”
“We should turn our lights on,” Flynn said. “That should startle anything that lives at this depth…right?” He glanced at Preeti, who shrugged.
“Not yet,” I said. “We’re mandated to minimize the disturbance to the area we’re exploring—as much as we can.”
“Captain, I’m getting a damage light on the communications array,” Dalil said.
I frowned. “Just like in the movies. Why is it always the communications array?”
Maya eased us down to a shelf. “So the heroes—or idiots depending on the movie—can’t call for help before they go through a series of adventures, until only a few of them are left alive.”
“The ones who were resourceful—or less idiotic?” Flynn asked.
“The emergency beacons are all still intact,” I said. “If we get into real trouble, we can push out one of those.”
“There doesn’t seem to be any damage to other systems,” Dalil said. “Inner hull is solid. Can’t say what the outer hull looks like though. It felt like we crashed into another ship, no?”
“Did anyone get a good look? Was it a shark?”
“Whatever it was had a hard shell,” Preethi said. “Sorry, I didn’t get a wide-angle view. I was trying to magnify.”
“Hard shell? So what was it, some huge lobster?”
Flynn gasped. “Or crab!” He reached over to Dalil and slapped his arm. “Like in your story.”
“If it’s still around on our way back, I will swing way around it,” Maya said. “You can get your wide-angle shot then, Pree.”
“Why didn’t we see it before it hit us?” I asked.
“Maybe it’s got some camouflage coloring that confuses our sensors,” Maya suggested. “The sensors are the most basic thing on this rig.”
I swiped on my screen to the view of the Nimasterion detector’s signals.
“I see something,” Maya said. “Flynn, confirm?”
She mirrored her view on his screen, and he zoomed in. “Wow, confirm. There’s an object down there.”
“Is it a treasure chest?” Dalil asked.
“More like a barrel.”
“That sounds about right.” Dalil’s voice was low and quiet.
Maya let out an audible breath. “We’re approaching.” We were down too deep to get out of the sub ourselves. She would have to do some tight maneuvering to get us close enough to that barrel to look at it and look inside it, and maybe even pry it off the ocean floor and take it back with us. Maya had wanted a camera drone, but we didn’t have the funds this time around. If we found something interesting or valuable, I’d make sure I included that drone in my next proposal.
Maya maneuvered close enough to the barrel for us to see that it was open. The lid was partly off and partly on, as if it had gotten knocked lose. We wouldn’t be able to see inside, at least not without some light.
We weren’t completely dark. We had needed some light to guide our way, of course. And now I gave Maya permission to shine a brighter, tighter beam of light into the barrel.
The barrel was empty.
“Can we tip it over?” I asked. “Just to be sure.”
“I wanted to test the robot arm in the field anyway,” Maya said, as she deployed the arm.
“Are there any brands or markings on the side of the barrel?”
“If there ever were, they’re gone now,” Dalil said, flicking through still images of the barrel isolated from the video we had just taken.
“Why isn’t there anything else around here?” Flynn asked. “Other cargo, or skeletons of the people who died, or parts of the ship.”
“Legend has it, the sea fairies turned the ship into splinters,” I said, rolling my gaze toward Dalil. “Maybe everything else got carried away or washed ashore something.”
“Then how did this one barrel survive and get all the way down here? The barrel that happened to be filled with treasure.”
“Nimasterion,” Dalil said. “Maybe it’s…heavy.”
Maya managed to dislodge the barrel from the floor and tip it over. Nothing fell or floated out.
“Let’s take it with us,” I said. “We can study it and maybe figure out if it’s centuries old, or if some joker got it at the local home improvement store and weighed it down somehow before sinking it. Who knows, it might be real. There might still be a gold coin stuck between the slats.”
“Captain!” Preeti cried.
Maya reacted quicker than I did. She was already retracting the robot arm, without the barrel attached. And throttled up the engine as something moved past our portholes.
Dalil turned his head toward me. “Captain, permission to turn lights to maximum.”
“Go ahead. Maya needs to see it so she can avoid it.”
We were reversing up and away from the floor. As we did, Dalil turned up the hull lights, and we saw it.
A part of it at first. Preeti was right. It was covered in a spiny shell. I saw one long tall bluish…
“Leg. That’s a leg,” I said. “And another one.”
“How tall it is this thing?” Flynn said, looking up through a dorsal porthole.
As we started moving away, we saw more of it. “Jointed legs.”
“We’re still under it,” Flynn said. “I’m looking at its belly.”
Our resident marine biology student researcher figured it out first. “It’s a crab.” She glanced between Flynn and Dalil. “You were right.”
One of the legs rose, far quicker than I’d ever seen a crab leg move through either air or water.
The sub swerved and through the forward portholes, we saw ourselves swinging around the leg that had suddenly planted itself before us.
“Is it trying to kick us?” Maya asked.
“She,” Preethi was now staring up through the dorsal porthole. “I think the crab is female. Looks like a spider crab, kind of. They have super long legs.”
“Please tell me this is normal,” Flynn said. “There are crabs this big in the world, right? And they’re gentle right?”
“No, not that I know of. The largest crab is still only half the size of a typical human male.”
We swerved again, port, than starboard. I didn’t know the submersible was that maneuverable.
“Sorry, everyone,” Maya said. “I might have to toss us around a little to get us out of here.”
Flynn was swiping through the sub’s cameras. “Maya, I think it’s following.”
“Should we kill the lights?”
The sub went dark. The only lights still on were the glow of our console screens and the blinking of a few indicators lights.
Maya slowed down. Flynn wasn’t receiving real time telemetry of the ocean floor with the communications array knocked down. He brought up the maps that were stored in his consoles’ onboard memory. He quietly called out directions to Maya. She adjusted. Dalil and I kept our eyes on the portholes, so we could assist with navigation.
The ship began to vibrate.
That shouldn’t be happening, I thought.
A glow of light filled the ventral portholes and moved toward the front of the sub.
Maya gasped and shut off the forward propellers. She turned on the reverse propellers. The result was that the sub just stopped for a moment.
And in that moment, the glow of light, light colored pink, purple, and blue, rose into view of the forward portholes.
The glow was coming from the center of a giant flat shell, between two dark eyes that peered at us. Luminescent threads of pink, purple, and blue flowed from that center.
I narrowed my eyes and tried to see what was at the center of those threads.
“Is that what I think it is?” Dalil whispered.
And almost as if she heard him, the giant crab tilted her head. Her mouth parts quivered.
Dalil leaned toward the porthole. “Who wants to tell her that we came for that jewel?”
“Not it,” Flynn said.
Suddenly, the crab’s head dipped below our line of view. We tried to follow the glow, but she was so fast, she was directly under us before we knew it. Her shell glittered, and in some places it wasn’t the glittering of an organic shell, but a metallic golden glittering. The shell came closer and nudged the sub so that we bounced upward a little.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said.
“Agreed,” was the unanimous response of my small crew.
Arms began reaching, fingers began swiping, switches were flicked, and actions were called out as we took evasive maneuvers and prepared to rise and surface.
I told Preeti to keep her eye on the crab. She called out to us where it was moving. The crab was swimming around us, sometimes just below, sometimes beside, and sometimes surging ahead. I wondered if the behavior was instinctive, if it was curiosity. Or if she was just letting us know that we were at her mercy. She almost hit us a few more times. But with warning from Preeti and Flynn, Maya managed to swerve away. I watched the speed of our ascent. If we rose any faster our bodies wouldn’t have time to acclimate to the pressure.
I almost gave the order to go faster anyway, when the crab moved too close one last time and managed to tap the sub before Maya moved away.
“She’s breaking off,” Preeti said.
But I didn’t trust it. Even though I saw the crab getting farther and farther away until we couldn’t see her anymore. I didn’t trust it when we surfaced. I didn’t trust it when we were all standing on the deck of our ship. I didn’t trust it when we were back ashore.
I kept expecting that giant crab to surface with us and start stalking toward our base camp.
The submersible’s outer hull was damaged. Not badly, but it would be costly to repair it. The communications array, Maya and I could probably repair on our own. But we wouldn’t really know until we took a closer look.
That night, we brought our folding table and chairs outside for dinner. It was a nice evening, but we all also wanted to keep our eye on the sea. If our new acquaintance was going to follow us to shore, we all wanted to be able to see her coming.
We started our discussion with that, strategies for keeping watch over the sea. We could rearrange the tents so that all windows faced toward the sea. We could rotate sleep schedules.
After surfacing, we told the truth right away to the rest of the project team. We told them we encountered a giant crab. There was skepticism, especially since our communications array got knocked out. Then we showed the images. Some were convinced that it was some kind of perspective effect. I was glad when the project lead finally just dismissed us, telling us that we should rest, and that they would review our data and images in advance of us giving a full report the next day.
We had the original data and images. We could do our own reviewing.
But at dinner, we just talked about what we saw and what it meant. The giant crab by herself would have been a tremendous discovery. But on top of that, there was the jewel. The Nimasterion.
“What are the odds that some innocent crab came wandering over to that barrel, accidentally got that jewel caught on its shell and started growing bigger from the radiation?” Preeti said.
“That’s a lot more plausible than my theory,” Dalil said, “that this is the same princess who got shipwrecked on an uncharted island, and was punished by the gods. They transformed her into a crab. Obviously, the story was missing the part where it was a giant crab.”
“Yes, but why a giant crab?” Flynn asked.
“Think about it. The way she knocked us around today. A giant crab could do what the fairies failed to do…wreck ships.”
“But there aren’t any stories about shipwrecks caused by sea monsters in this area,” Preeti said.
“Because she refused to do what the gods wanted her to do, just like her friends the sea fairies,” Dalil said.
“I can’t tell if that’s a happy ending or a sad ending for that princess who didn’t do anything to anybody,” Maya said, shaking her head.
I leaned back in my folding chair. “She let us go,” I said, looking around the table. “We came into her home turf to take her stuff, and she let us go. If Maya was a lesser pilot, that crab—the princess, whoever she is—probably wouldn’t have nudged us so much.”
“You think she was toying with us?” Flynn asked.
I leaned forward again. “Not toying, playing.”
“Whether she used to be human or has always been a crab,” Dalil said, “we can’t take that jewel from her. I would have loved to study it, just hold it. But we all saw it. It was set between her eyes, like a jewel on a crown.”
“I agree,” I said.
A chorus of agreement responded to Dalil and to me.
“But what about the other teams?” Preeti said. “They’ll see the jewel on our images. We can say we’re out, but they can just get someone else to go down and get it. And even if they agree to leave the jewel alone, they’ll want to go down to study the crab. I would want to if I didn’t know better. I’m dying to know more about her.”
“It might take them some time to manage that,” I said. “To fix the sub.”
Maya smirked. “Captain, please tell me we’re not the idiots—I mean heroes—who are going to try and save that innocent crab from the ‘evil’ company we work for?”
“I doubt she’ll need any help from anyone going down in a little submersible. But we are the reason that news about a giant crab in this sea is about to spread. They’ll authenticate our data and images and see that there wasn’t any ‘perspective effect’ going on. Even if our company doesn’t think she’s worth another look, someone out there will. And even if our company decides to be responsible and leave the Nimasterion where it is, someone out there won’t.”
“So what do we do?” Preeti asked.
We were silent for a moment, while I thought.
I glanced at Dalil. “We tell the truth. And we ask if we can go back and do more research on the crab. Then we’ll go back down and make sure that we don’t bother her too much. And that we don’t get crushed or eaten.”
“And if they kick us off the project?” Maya said. “Or if others start coming over now that there’s something interesting happening here?”
“It’s not on any of you to go any further,” I said. “You’re right, Maya. That might happen. A lot might happen that we can’t foresee. Honestly, I think the key is to figure out what the jewel really is. Is it just a unique meteorite? Or is it something more important? Maybe those gods in Dalil’s story weren’t just angry at some king who offended them. Maybe they wanted that ship destroyed so the jewel would be destroyed. That makes me wonder why.”
Dalil raised his eyebrows. “A conspiracy of mythological proportions.” He nodded. “I’m in.”
“So am I,” Maya said. “I still want to buy out that sub. Give it a proper name.”
“Yeah, I’d like to see where this goes,” Flynn said. “Your whole ‘tell the truth’ plan intrigues me.”
“I’d like to stay with this team too, Captain,” Preeti said. “As long as I can.”
I didn’t know that it was possible to breathe a sigh of relief and anxiety at the same time. I gazed out at the sea, the dark waters rippling under the dimming orange horizon made by the sinking sun. But I could have sworn, I also saw in that horizon glowing threads of pink, purple, and blue.
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel