Depth

“The short-tailed Shearwater champions out most other seabirds at diving 70 meters at a shot.” Anthony smacked his lips after a sip of beer. “They do that just to snag a bite to eat off some hapless anchovy. So a little 18-meter hole like this one isn’t really that far to dive.”

Nea zipped herself into her wetsuit. Her equipment was at the ready on-deck, her turquoise flippers hung besides Tony’s larger black frog-feet on a peg.

“Needless to say, we should probably be diving in pairs.” Anthony watched her. “you sure you don’t want to wait?”

“Sure,” Nea said, facing away as she wet down her mask.

Anthony had dressed after they’d come back from snorkeling at the atoll, now he was tapping on their netbook with a distracted air.

“Just don’t inhale seawater,” he said, semi-jokingly.

Nea nodded briskly and pushed off from the side. The rush and gurgle that came from hitting the water drowned out a rejoinder, if there was one.

The seabed was easy. Nea scissor-kicked until she reached the floor, proceeding along parallel to it. Tiny octopi and trumpet fish got out of her way. The sudden drop off of life in front of her let her know when she’d reached the hole. She kicked until she hung suspended above the great blue space, darkness beneath her, light above her.

She descended slow. The walls grew barren, not even polyps could be found after a few meters. Nea forced herself to breath steadily and evenly as the light faded around her, watchful for any symptoms of narcosis.

The pressure she had braced for at the beginning of the dive was slow in coming. In fact, it was long past the point where it should be noticeable. Nea checked her depth gauge.

20 meters.

Nea forced herself to take a slow breath. She squeezed her eyes shut, and examined the gauge again. 20 meters. She sat unmoving in the middle of the hole, gently rotating in place.

She did not feel the beginning stirrings of narcosis. In fact, she felt fine. She didn’t even feel that first warning shot, the drunk’s overconfidence. And there was no real pressure.

This was all wrong. And, being an experienced diver, she should head up.

…unless the depth gauge was broken. And in that case, she hadn’t gone very far at all. And that meant that she really wasn’t suffering from narcosis, and could ascend when she recognized the first symptoms.

Nea went down.

It was not very far, not to her. They had been to the big blue hole off Belize and the great barrier reef. She had free-dived alone before she’d met Anthony. So the darkness below her held no new terror.

When the darkness grew light, it did give her pause.

The depth meter read 36. It was lighter.

The depth meter read 39. It was lighter and the depth meter was definitely broken and she was ascending. Her and Tony would have a laugh about it.

43 meters and she broke the surface. And everything was very wrong. She was wrong. This was not the atoll with the boat floating nearby. The sky was wrong, it was an orange tint shading into a pink on the horizon, though the sun sat high behind her. The sound was wrong, she found, because she did not surface amidst the waves but a circular formation of stones like a volcanic chimney. For a long way all around her were cisterns of black stones and far off, if she turned a certain way, was the surf.

She turned the other way and saw a beach.

Treading water, she made it up to the side of her circle. Her equipment was cumbersome, but she demurred taking it off. The black rocks, slick at a distance, were rough and tore at her hands. Her mask she merely settled on top of her head. The depth gauge she abandoned, leaving it on the wall of her cistern.

Navigating the narrow walls in flippers were tricky, but she didn’t have her wading shoes. Though the danger of falling in was almost too much to contemplate, the rocks would leave her limping.

And if she had to get away fast…

The shore took forever to approach. As details revealed themselves, Nea found the beach was made up of regular-looking sand and was free of any flotsam or detritus a normal beach might have.

Nea flopped on her hands and knees in the sand. It took a few minutes of heavy breathing before the beach stopped undulating beneath her. Standing up was another trial.

The beach skirted a greater island, not the atoll she had left. A cinder cone dominated the landscape. The rest of the land was taken up by what Nea thought was a jungle until she approached it. The trees and vines resolved into complex rock formations. Nea put her ear out.

This far from the surf, the beach was completely silent. No animals, no birds, not even insects.

Nea looked behind her, once, and walked along the beach for a bit.

There were places where the wells had broken open, forming larger, irregular mouths. Nothing swam in them. Nea ditched her fins and ascended a hill with minor ease.

The next cove was twenty or so circles, broken into one. The beach was littered with sickle-shaped stones.

Nea drew nearer and found they were not stones.

One lay upended in the sand like a discarded oyster shell. Nea touched the surface and found it nearly frictionless. One side was indented and showed grooves. Possibly to hold musculature.

Nea stood up. The shell was as long as her leg. It looked like the discarded shell of a horseshoe crab. A horseshoe crab the size of a small horse.

Nea chuckled nervously and pushed it over. Only empties littered the beach. She could not spot any movement.

Further along the shore, Nea found rocks that matched the ones rimming the wells. They were stacked up into piles three times her height at minimum. Nea set her fins carefully down and gingerly tried her bare foot on a rock. They were much less slippery out of the water, and their edges seemed worn. Nea climbed, panting, sweating, using her knees to anchor herself.

Something screamed.

Nea froze, hugging the pile. A few errant rocks slid down behind her, tumbling far too noisily. She breathed shallow, waiting. Nothing.

The rest of the climb was much less humorous.

Nea sat on a small indent in the top of the pile and looked around. There were many mounds, some taller than hers, all made of the same rocks. They lacked any other defining features.

Nea scoped the land, craning her neck in an attempt to see through the petrified mesh of the jungle. When the bird emerged she nearly fell off, her flinch sent rocks tumbling down.

The bird had rose-and-white plumage, head cocked to glare at her from one beady dinosaur eye. Its beak was long and straight and hooked slightly at the end. The edge of the beak had a bright, red line that curved over it like lipstick, and the rostrum itself was tiger-striped. The bird hopped a few paces, dancing toward the stone piles. It looked ridiculous.

Mad laughter came bubbling out of Nea. She held her stomach as the bird awkwardly traversed the land on webbed feet almost as big as its body. She made a honking call that was half goose, half peacock.

The bird cocked its head to eye her. It sidled up to a pile that rose slightly above hers—and placed the bend of one wing on top of the rocks.

Nea gaped.

And then it screamed again.

Nea was upright for only a half-second more. Then she was down, scooting on her hands, riding the scree as rapidly as she could. She grabbed up her fins without slowing and ran.

The beach had no surf, so she could not run on the firmer wet sand and gain ground easily. Breath caught in her lungs and the tanks flapped at her back; a useless, dead weight. Past the shells, cresting the hill, she fell, got up, fell again.

The scream did not sound from behind her, but she knew the bird was coming. Could feel the bird coming. Nea punched the cramp in her calf and sliced the sand with her steps. She found the cove where she had come ashore and, panicking, set foot on the rocks without putting on her fins. She slipped, the rocks sliced, and a shock of pain went up her leg as the saltwater bit into her wound. Nea wriggled on a fin, hyperventilating, watching the jungle behind her. There was nothing from the “trees” as she successfully donned the other fin, nothing screaming over the hill as she forced herself to walk slow, arms out for balance.

She found the depth gauge and gave a little scream of happiness. Then she looked down and realized that there were two wells that met at that spot, two places she could have emerged from. Nea gulped, pressing a hand to her side. When she’d surfaced, had she faced the shore? No, she’d faced out to the side, at the endless progression of wells, but which way? They stretched off in either direction, almost identical.

Nea looked back at the shore.

The bird was there, observing her with red eyes. It used its wings to help it locomote in the sand like a pterosaur.

Nea turned and dove into the well before her.

No time for an equipment check. No time to properly anchor the mask. She had dropped the depth gauge when she jumped in, but it didn’t matter, because she knew how far it was up to the other surface. And she kicked.

The water grew dark, and Nea forced herself to swim slowly. She could feel pressure bear up in her fluid cavities. Extra fluid in her mask told her her nose was bleeding. But she did not stop her steady ascent.

Once she cleared the lip of the hole, Nea began kicking in earnest. Her foot burned, and her cramped leg refused to work right. But she kicked and she broke the surface and there was the boat, and Anthony jumping up and spilling his beer. He cupped his mouth with his hands and shouted something. Nea kicked closer to the boat. The adrenaline had begun draining from her the second she had broken the surface, now it took all her willpower to swim. Anthony tossed out a lifering which she gladly sank into. She cried with relief as he towed her back to the boat.

Anthony pulled her up to the deck. Nea tore her mask off and kicked her flipper free.

“Bird,” she gasped, “big—big bird!”

“Babe, you’re bleeding.” Anthony grabbed her foot. The pain made her cry out and wrench away. She tried to sit up and grabbed handfuls of his cargo shorts.

“Big bird,” she said, “we need to go. We need to go!”

Anthony pried his shorts from her grasp.

“Narcosis,” he said, patting her shoulder, “you’ll be all right. I’ll get the kit.”

Nea almost screamed when he walked away, but stopped herself. Her breath hitched in her chest.

“What happened down there?” Anthony called from the cabin, “you make a friend? They told us there were no sharks in this area.”

Nea gulped. “No,” she managed.

“Okay, then, it can wait. Let’s get you dry and bandaged. Then we’ll get out of here, okay?”

Nea covered her eyes with her hand and laughed. A swell rocked the boat gently. Her heart rate slowed as she took a seat against the bulkhead. The sky was blue, the water was open.

Nea smiled up at the sky. She glanced down into the water just as something vast unfurled beneath her.

Because it was not far to dive. No, not far at all.

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