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Adamski’s Tale

Out beyond the peninsula, halfway to the Caymans, there is a peculiar reef, discovered only recently by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Commissioned Corps—how’s that for a jawbreaker?—in the course of their mappings of our Caribbean here. At that time the seamen on board happened to notice some strange what you call fauna in the vicinity, I mean to say fish and sea animals and what have you. Strange fish, large, primitive-looking, like armor-plated, and not too observant of the boat above, despite having more eyes than is customary for fish, three, sometimes five. Also when they haul up the sea anchor they find a severed arm caught wrapped around it, like an octopus’s, though from the size it would have been a big one, bigger than most. This much I heard from the university people, who had caught wind of it somehow and so of course felt that it would reflect well on them as a hall of science and bring them some little measure of fame if they could capture and name a whole barrel of new species all in one go. So, they outfit their entire biology department with all manner of fancy diving equipment and down the fellers go.

Now what do they find? Well, the fishes of course, and some crabs like no one has ever seen, as wide as a railroad tie and striped like tigers. Unfortunately the fish turned out to be a bit too slippery for the eggheads, rather a bit more sly than expected, and there was more of a chance of the crabs catching them than the other way around. They had to satisfy themselves with coral and anemones, which were also strange and unheard-of, aggressive little barnacles with razor legs that could leave scoring on steel, or so they said.

But they found more than that. From the surface, the reef is just a shallow patch, not even a danger to ships except in bad weather, but seen from below of course it’s a mountain, a peak heaving up from the edge of a great undersea cliff. On the south side it drops down and away to, well, who knows? The abyss as they call it. The bottom of the world. So one of the divers swims over to that side, chasing one of those three-eyed fish I suppose, and, shining his light into the depths, what do you think he sees halfway down the mountainside? He sees a great yawning cave, but not just a cave, no. On either side of the opening, like gateposts, are these two pillars. Obelisks. Cleanly polyhedral, symmetrical, geometrical. What I mean to say is man-made, or else made by a very smart lobster with a plumb line and a chisel. What did it all mean? The ruins of some ancient city, sunken beneath the sea by an earthquake or what have you? The only problem was that the obelisks were too deep for the divers, being one-fifty or two hundred feet below the surface. But not too deep for a submarine.

So, one year later the university people outfitted C-7 with underwater lights and cameras, ones mounted on the outside that could be triggered by a portable radio wave transmitter from within the ship; we were to try to take photographs of the two obelisks and to see what else of interest might be there at the edge of the cave. Down we went, my crew plus Riesling, the engineer from the university who was to snap the photos, and Straworthy, the head of the bunch; the other two cooled their heels up top on the tender that towed us. We made our way using the echolocation device as best we could. There’s no windows to look out from in a submarine, you understand! Nobody goes down in a submarine to enjoy the view, you’re steering with your brain and your gut, not your eyes. We made it down there, though, almost two hundred feet down, and it was a pretty piece of navigation if I must say so myself. We had ourselves lined up with something according to the man at the Fessenden machine—the echolocation device, you understand—so we make any God’s number of passes past the place and Riesling snaps a bunch of photos and back up we go. On the surface he dismantles the boxes mounted on the bow and goes off to play in the little darkroom he had set up down in the hold of the tender. We all wait in the galley, playing at cards and listening to the science men talk, and finally at suppertime he comes back out ready to bust his rivets, starts handing out copies of photos to anyone who’ll look at them. Sure enough, his jury-rig worked like a charm, and on the few pictures that he happened to snap off at the right moment you could see these pillars plain as day, or at least parts of them. Everything about them had the look of having been hand-carved; they had flat faces and corners, and upon them were carvings like hieroglyphics or hydrogriffins or however it is that you call them. They were not quite letters and not quite pictures, but strange arrangements of wriggling shapes and circles, but somehow meaningful, like you could almost figure out what they meant to say if you stared at them long enough.

There was one other photo he had brought out which at first we ignored but, at his insistence, gradually captured our interest until it eclipsed that of the others; it was taken during what must have been a very close pass (in fact you could say that we had very nearly killed ourselves and not even realized it), and what we were looking at was a photograph taken directly into the mouth of the cavern. What surprised us initially was the roominess of the space, for the cavity did not become smaller as it deepened but, after a short, tunnel-like passage, it apparently broadened and increased in size. There seemed to be a large empty space there just inside the giant reef, the cave walls strangely smooth and regular, and then just at the farthest edge we thought we could make out a second pair of obelisks. Then Riesling pointed out something that had particularly piqued his interest: the picture gave a reasonably good view of the top of the cave, and in the open space the end of the tunnel, just at the last reaches of our light, the rocky roof widened and then unaccountably it disappeared and was replaced by a flat, reflective surface, as if it were the skin of a giant bubble. An air pocket!

It didn’t take long before one of our university friends wondered aloud about the possibility of steering the submarine into the cave and surfacing—so to speak—at the far end, where the signposts led. Well! I was quick to inform him that this was a rather drawn-out and complicated method of committing suicide, and that surely we could all simply tie rocks around our necks and jump overboard and thus avoid the loss of the submarine and all the other expensive equipment. Seagrave—for I think it was he who had suggested the idea—backed down immediately, saying that of course I knew best and that the safety of the crew was paramount and all of that sort of thing, but the idea had been planted, planted in soil which had already been tilled and made ready by those damnable photos of the carved monuments come from who knows where. I could see the boys in the crew mulling it over, thinking how the adventure might just be possible with a little luck, and truth be told I was thinking the same. Off in corners I could hear them talking of discovering Atlantis—in tones of jest, but at the same time trying on the words for size, practicing, curious to see how they rang in the open air.

The next morning I could see that every man on board had chewed the notion over all night in his bunk and that it was only a matter of time before someone broached the subject. Perhaps a better man would have bellowed at them all, swatted their heads and instructed them to go to hell on their own, for I would not lead them…but I did not. Looking back on it now, I can see that there was something in me too, some reckless mood that wanted this madness, this all-or-nothing turn of the wheel. For where was I headed, now that I had left the Navy? I’d spent the war patrolling the home front, I was no hero. I was lucky to have even had this job, not to put too fine a point on it, and I chafed at the thought of living out my days tootling along in some miserable steamer, some backwater tug, serving every man but myself. So, when Straworthy asked if it would be possible to risk entry into the tunnel, I said that it would be.

By nine o’ clock we had reassembled in the sub, this time with all four university men as passengers, Straworthy, Riesling, Seagrave and Chaplin. We were able to scrape together a fair sort of expeditionary outfit, including lanterns, compasses, a camera, an inflatable rubber raft and even a breathing apparatus should the air in the pocket be unwholesome. The scholars all sat in a huddle up by the torpedo tubes, hugging knees to chests, and we worked as best we could around them. It was no small thing we were about; may I remind you again that there is no window in a submarine, these being at cross-purposes to the necessity of keeping the ocean on the outside. We had only the Fessenden oscillator to guide us, and once we approached the place where we thought our cave lay, any freak current could have pushed us up against the rocks and compromised the ship. Regardless, we moved down the side of the mountain, and then suddenly our man at the headphones says he found an empty space where there once was a solid wall, and we hoped and prayed we had found our cave and not merely some other depression, for otherwise we would be moving directly at the side of a mountain.

We moved forward, as slow as possible, sailors and passengers alike on tenterhooks, expecting at each moment for the walls to stave in and water to come gushing in upon them; I imagine that every man aboard was fighting off a panic, a voice in their head screaming at them to turn back, to give up this mad idea. I stood close by the men at the controls to watch for any sign that they might flinch and throw the boat in reverse. They in turn watched the man listening to the oscillator, whose primary function I think was to alert us should we be about to die. He did not do so however; instead he told us that we were closed in on the sides and clear straight ahead, and so we went forward. Then there was a frightful shout; an obstacle dead ahead. We reversed the engines and the ship slowed to a stop. We had Riesling shine the radio-controlled lights now, and I manned the periscope; slowly we rose, and I watched for any sign of a rocky ceiling coming down to crush us, but there was only emptiness and water. Then we breached a flat, shimmering plane, and I realized that we had done it: the submarine had surfaced—inside a mountain two hundred feet below sea level!

We yet had a terrible risk to take in merely opening the hatch, however, since we had no idea as to whether the air in that pocket was breathable or poisonous; if anything, chances favored the latter, since if the reef had been formed from a volcano, then the trapped gases were likely to have come from deep within the earth and be laced with all manner of vapors and acids. One of the more reckless members of our crew volunteered to open a ventilator and take a sniff. He did so, with the rest of the crew and myself secretly holding our breaths. He reported that the air was stale and had an odor, but it did not burn his nostrils or cause any lightness of head. As a final precaution we struck a match and drew it close to the pipe, since we would have to use lanterns to see in the darkness, and so needed to know if there were any combustible gases without, but the flame only flickered as usual and then guttered out.

Two of my men went topside with a lantern to drop anchor, and I followed soon after, with Straworthy and Seagrave behind me. I had worried earlier that the periscope and conning tower would be pinned against the rocky roof of our cavern, but to my surprise there was only darkness above us; in fact, there seemed to be nothing but darkness—darkness and silence. There was not even the familiar lap lap lap of water against our hull, for the surface was as smooth as glass, and I tell you now that it was as if we had traveled back to chapter one of the Holy Bible, except instead of the spirit of God hovering over the waters, the formless and emptiness, the darkness over the deep, it was our little submarine. Ha! I say it in jest but He knows himself that it is the truth.

We stood there looking about, not knowing precisely what to do, almost afraid to speak, and then, as my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I saw something out there, just at the very edge of the light. I walked out to the farthest tip of the bow, lantern in hand, and turned my face to the unknown, and finally I could see them, those damned things, those pylons, again, upon a faint shining shoreline, with their fairy script carved upon them. It took my breath clean away, I tell you, whether from triumph or awe I cannot say, but my companions soon crowded around and saw the same things too, so they were no mirage. Straworthy began calling for his rubber dinghy and I knew that we were going ashore.

Fifteen minutes later I was paddling in the dark with the four professors and seaman Kine, paddling towards the ghostly monuments floating and bobbing in the darkness before us like a will-o’-the-wisp, if you know what that is. The echoes of our oars passed back and forth over our heads, bounding away and then coming back at odd intervals to frighten us. At one moment we even halted to make sure that there was not indeed two boats, ours and some phantom in pursuit, but there was only ourselves and the submarine and the gate in the darkness.

Finally we struck land, and it made us shudder to do so, for only now did we understand the size of the things that had led us here; they towered over us like two great trees, their tops lost in the dark; I could fit my entire hand into one of the carvings near the base, and I had to stretch myself to the last unfurling of my person just to reach it. My two arms outstretched could only just encompass one side, and the edges and faces were not chipped and marked with pocks like ruins but still had a smoothness to them. No wonder, said Riesling, for what was there to erode it? Not wind nor rain could harm it here. And I tell you I would have no more tried to make a dent in the things than I would kick a sleeping tiger, so there they sat. For a while the university gentleman made sketches of the hydrogriffins and I sat on the ground and watched them, until we heard a yelp from Kine, who had been poking about the surrounding area. What he showed us was that the ground was uneven and rocky where it rose up to the left and right of the gates towards the darkness, but there was a long, wide ribbon of flatness extending from between the pylons and out away from the shore—in other words, a thing that had every appearance of a road, heading off into the darkness.

By this time our scientific friends were on the verge of giddiness, prattling away at each other in their own kind of talk, and before I had a moment to think they had announced their intention of following that road wherever it led, provided it was not over a precipice. I proposed that Kine and I should make camp between the obelisks and await their return, as I did not like the idea of all six of us marching into the darkness and leaving the men on the sub to wonder and worry at themselves. We checked our watches and they agreed that they would return after two hours to report their progress, and then a second expedition would be discussed if we felt it was warranted. After a round of handshakes, Kine and I watched the four depart; there was a slow rise beyond the monuments, but then the ground dipped and wound down into what looked like some kind of valley. There at the top of the ridge there were no obstructions to block the light from their lantern, and so Kine and I watched every step while the men became smaller and smaller, until they were no more than flickering moths before a candle spark. Then Kine and I both gasped together, for the dim distant light now shone upon what looked like a collection of smooth walls and cornered angles. Dwellings?

Then the lantern disappeared behind a shadow and was gone.

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