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Sexton

This morning I found myself at the city library, scanning the American papers for any news regarding the upcoming election, and it occurred to me that I could try to find the article that I had read concerning the expedition of the young gentleman that I visited the night before. With a little help from a wan and sickly librarian I found the correct paper, and I picked apart the story for any new information, but there was very little that I did not already know—scientific expedition, three men lost, one man hospitalized. Then, just as I was about to fold the paper closed and set it aside, I had a moment of electric recognition which nearly made me jump out of my chair. Printed in the paper alongside the story were photographs of the submarine docked in the harbor, and also of the submarine’s captain, an ex-American naval officer named Adamski. The picture showed a broad-chested man with dark, sunken eyes, close-cropped hair and a wide handlebars moustache. I realized with a start that I had seen this man in the flesh only the day prior: when I had left the hospital at sundown, I had spotted him loitering outside. His face had struck me because he had looked intense and restless, watching those who entered and exited, and momentarily he fixed me with his stare. Upon his features I could see a kind of gruff manliness grappling with anxiety, as though he were not sure if it were a prudent moment to be afraid, but then he backed away behind a column and began scanning the street again.

Suddenly now this person began to interest me a great deal. No doubt it would be only natural for him to be concerned about young Seagrave’s health, but what purpose did lurking around the hospital gates serve? Did he wish to ambush someone going in, perhaps an agent for the backers of the expedition? Was it a question of money? Or was he trying to ambush someone coming out, a doctor, or young Seagrave himself? Does he have something to hide? Or, maybe, something to reveal?

Since my successful infiltration into the mental hospital last night I had been fancying myself as something of an amateur adventurer, and so no sooner had I the thought to visit the harbor than I was striding off downhill to the waterfront. I had never seen a submarine before, and if it had not been towed back to wherever it had come from it might yet be down there, bobbing in the bay. Perhaps Captain Adamski would be there with it, and who knew what sort of fascinating secrets were ready to be shared with a sympathetic yet unrelated party such as myself? Little did I know what was in store for me.

The expedition turned out to be an uncomfortably long one; the water’s edge is a warren of sheds, piers and plankways, some areas with no apparent access to the land lubber, others guarded by sun-scarred men sipping at old-fashioned pipes through pursed and toothless mouths, a gallonsworth of spittle suddenly crossing your path in a looping squirt as you passed. One white-haired sailor grabbed a pinch of my jacket and demanded to know the country of its manufacture, what specie of ovine supplied the material, what the process for the dyeing. He thought little of me when I had difficulty supplying the answers, and another fire-hose blast of saliva was shot over the rail into the water, dropping itself cleanly into the gap between a young Cuban laddie heaving by in a scull and a bobbing cormorant dreaming of home.

Fed up after what seemed like hours of pounding boardwalk I finally did the sensible thing and gave an urchin a penny to tell me where the submarino was. He lit off like a monkey with a fire on its tail, his dirty simian feet clambering up and over every obstacle in his path, and I had to bolt like a fool to keep pace with the little monster. He called back to me, aquí aquí! and I imagine it must have been a sight of no small hilarity for the sea dogs watching me, the young man in his fancy jacket and hat leaping across the docks and railings to keep pace with a spry little gutter boy who’d never interfered with clean linen in his life. In no time we picked up more children, all screaming and chasing my leader in a wide flying wedge, and it was a great jolly footrace in the salt air like nothing anyone had ever seen; we were cursed and cheered, with chips of wood and pegs and even empty rum bottles thrown after us in great arcing heaves from afar, but these hitting no one, for in their wake I had acquired some of the exemption from harm that belongs to children and drunks and the very very foolish.

When I could run no more, we were there, and the children lined the rope at the water’s edge and looked down on the great metal slug below. At first I could only collapse onto a coil of rope and try to catch my breath, the children obscuring the view like a screen, but after a few moments of gawking they boiled off, holding their noses and looking for new sport. Indeed there was an unfortunate funkor about the place, notable even for the waterfront.

In time I was able to stand again, and I looked down to where the machine was berthed about twenty feet below. What I saw was a gray shadow shaped like an elongated lozenge, with a little fez of a cap in the middle and then a long pole or mast on top of that. There were also awkward-looking metal-and-glass boxes affixed on either side of the deck near where the hat was, and by the coloration I judged that these were recent additions to the machine, perhaps sensitive apparatuses designed for scientific exploration.

After a few minutes of study I came to the realization that it was almost a kind of necessity that the exterior surfaces of submarines be somewhat uninteresting, as this one most certainly was, for they had to be fashioned to avoid both interference from watery turbulence and attention from enemy vessels. This dullness did not deter the more nautically inclined onlookers, however, for there were yet a few enthusiasts who gaped at the thing, despite the fact that the ship had certainly been tied up here for some days now and was not showing any signs of gradually becoming more fascinating.

In time an older gentleman of the seafaring variety took notice of my attention to the ship and struck up a polyglot conversation with me about the marvels of modern engineering—men encased in metal scooting beneath the waves, liquid armored moles, deadly, like the blind gunpowder in the bullet casing, ready and waiting to spark the movement that spits the torpedo out to its final awful flowering. Here the suntanned man made an explosion with his mouth and threw up his hands like a wave. How long before we would have giant undersea cities, encased in metal, lit with electric light, powered by who knows what kind of fuel bubbling away down there, unknown and untapped? Great swaths of soggy sea coal, perhaps? Or how about teams of yoked sperm whales turning millwheels and plowing up the sea bed for crabs and fresh young oysterfruit? There was enough room down there for civilizations to live, all the room in the world, no more bumping elbows with the other countries, each in its own bubble, an end to war (he spat), a new frontier, the next human era. We had already proved that we couldn’t get along with each other, that it only took the shortest of shoves to tumble us out of civility and into barbarism, so now it was time for the P.C. age—Post-Christ—and instead we would worship Neptune, the great crushing father that presses in at the bubble and divides us from our enemies. From the cross to the trident: it was the dawning of the Age of Aquarium.

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