Chapter 1: Tombstone Tower
Megalops floated in the twilit waters of Juno Reef, in the shadow of the Tombstone Tower, and grieved. Other Aquarians considered this a sacred place: a memorial to all the victims of the Medusa Massacres who had been entombed in calcite, here and in other reef-cities up and down the coast. There were only two victims who mattered to Megalops. The ghosts of his mate and child haunted his every waking moment, flailed madly through his nightmares. Their final, frantic screams filled his ear channels, rebounding and reverberating inside his skull until his sanity lay in tatters. Other mourners made the pilgrimage to Tombstone Tower to find peace. Megalops came here every day to remind himself why he should unleash war.
The high-pitched chatter of approaching Aquarians drew near. He drifted into the ruins of a submerged building as Mother Ocean smashed against the tower’s windward side above him. She, too, seemed ready to do battle with those who would threaten Her children.
A pair of biosculptors from neighboring reef-cities swam out of the murk: Auriga of Tillamook and Makaira of Nehalem. Megalops liked Auriga. She was beautiful, of course. She had skin of smooth, unblemished silver; perfectly formed, scalloped fin ridges along her arms and legs; long, delicate flipper-feet. The webbing between her toes and fingers and at the outer edges of her fin ridges paled to a milky white. Her colony, like his own, had been savaged by Medusa. Makaira’s had not been touched, and her sympathy felt as hard and unnatural as the stone-coated corpses of fish that lay half-buried in the surrounding seabed.
Megalops watched the pair glide toward the plaque near the tower’s base and said nothing. Makaira chittered loudly enough to make eavesdropping unavoidable.
“I know this place is meant to be a tribute to the fallen, but it freezes my blood like the Deep Black. I don’t see how he can bear to live in this graveyard. The memories must torment him without mercy!”
“I wonder,” answered Auriga, “if memories are all he has to comfort him. Many survivors find themselves trapped in the same dark currents. Each of us fights the demons in his own way, Makaira.”
“And each of us surfaces to breathe when our lungs demand it. I fear Megalops means to linger in this morbid place and hold his breath until he drowns. Juno doesn’t need more death, it needs more life.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Megalops as he kicked out of the shadows. Auriga looked chagrined, but Makaira recoiled as if confronted by unquiet spirits. Perhaps he wasn’t the only one to see such things in these accursed waters.
“But life grows out of death, doesn’t it? We biosculptors built Aquarius on the bones of drowned Human cities, planted gardens in the wreckage and seeded them with living works of art. We Join with the Living Reefs to draw inspiration from the memories of long-dead ancestors. And here, now, we resurrect a murdered colony beneath the world’s most towering monument to genocide. If I linger here more often than I should, it’s to remember what we sacrificed to save ourselves.”
He swam between the two of them. Auriga’s jade eyes brimmed with compassion. Makaira arched away from him, face pinched and anxious, a healthy creature terrified of catching a disease. Did she fear he would infect her with his madness? Perhaps he would, at that. He pointed one webbed finger at the gruesome statuary encircling the base of Tombstone Tower. A tiny white crab speckled with red, like a blood-spattered skeleton, scuttled from the crook of a frozen elbow and dove into the crevice between two fossilized legs, joints clicking as it moved. Megalops’s extended arm held steady. On the inside, his heart tumbled, flotsam on a stormy sea.
“My mate Loreto and daughter Decora are a permanent part of the memorial…near the top, almost to the surface. Hard to make them out, in that tangle of arms and legs and faces. When Medusa struck, Loreto’s only thought was to protect her child. You see how she holds Decora above her, as high as she can reach, trying to lift her child to safety? Even as the other dying members of her pod clawed at her, clambered up her back, as the nanomechs wove their smothering cocoon of calcite around her flesh, she struggled to push her child above the waves. Impossible. She must have known. And still, she didn’t stop trying. She never will.”
He turned to his fellow biosculptors. Auriga’s delicate features crumbled, reflecting his own grief. Makaira’s expression more closely resembled the faces of the statues: trapped, terrified, wanting only to flee. “I believe there’s a lesson there, don’t you?”
Auriga drifted closer and squeezed his arm. “You’re right, Megalops. We’ll honor your mate’s courage by bringing this reef and this colony back to life. We won’t ever stop trying, either.”
Makaira nodded tepidly, relieved that his attention had been diverted elsewhere. Megalops chirped a brittle laugh. “Hmm. I see that the lesson depends on the student. Yours is uplifting, Auriga.”
He didn’t answer, simply swam away. He could hear Makaira chattering to Auriga and had no desire to listen. As Tombstone Tower receded in his wake, its upper stories jutting high above the waves like the polished tusk of a beached leviathan, the ghosts of his lost mate and child followed him. No matter where he drifted through the sprawling Juno reefscape, where new life wriggled its way out of Death’s skeletal embrace, they were never far away.
He appreciated that biosculptors from other reefs came to these cemetery waters, spent their creative energies fighting to revive his home. It was a noble effort. But it was not enough. The rest of Aquarius clung to the belief that the Redeemer scientists from the barren lands above the waves who had unleashed the Medusa Plague had been an aberration, the threat eliminated by incinerating one isolated nest of vipers. How could they be so naive? Did the history of dirt-swimmers teach them nothing?
A pair of elfins darted from a stand of elkhorn coral beneath him, diaphanous bodies luminescing pale blue as they dove through a crumbled window into the cavernous blackness of a nearby building. For a moment, before the spectral light that marked their passage faded, Megalops glimpsed Loreto’s and Decora’s somber, pleading faces.
He would find a way to guarantee the survival of Aquarius, even if the others never understood his actions. Even if they hated and reviled him. Let them curse, let them claw and clamber at his back. He would still hold them up. He would still lift them to safety.
Someday, they would build a monument to Megalops, commemorating the destruction of their enemies instead of the slaughter of innocents. Then, finally, his mate and daughter would be at peace. And so would he.