Elliot awoke with a start in the middle of the night to an odd sound. Earlier, she had fallen into a light sleep, too anxious for the dive and possible discoveries ahead to fall any deeper. They’d erected their tents on the small island for the sole purposes of privacy, removed their air-tanks, and slept in their suits.
As her ears focused further, the odd sound sharpened; a flutter, much like that of a distressed bird, flopped about as if it were about to fall over dead. The sound startled her from sleep, sent her mind racing through possible human causes. The sound was too distinctive, clearly a non-human emanation. It reverberated off the cavernous walls around the small island, went silent, then began again every few seconds. She strained her ears to locate its source; it seemed to be coming from all around. She sneaked a crawl toward her tent’s flap, unzipped it with a careful, quiet motion, and peered out through the light from a pile of torches and glow wands int the center of their tents.
She had been the only one awakened by the phantom so far. Her eyes skirted in all directions from the front of the tent’s view, spied nothing. She crept out of the tent on her hands and knees, petrified still as a hand clasped over her mouth. Liana’s face emerged before she could scream. She shook her head once, motioned to the partial darkness of a high-corner across the caver. The light from the center of camp fragmented shadows of the tents across the walls and ceiling of the small chamber. Elliot’s heart raced, but her eyes darted along Liana’s forearm and finger to the corner they pointed at.
Her eyes strained against the darkness. She would have missed the source of the commotion had the bird that hung half-out its mouth not struggled to free itself once more. Even in the low light, Elliot could see blood drip from puncture wounds in its abdomen. It looked eerily like a crow, but with a distinct iridescence to its feathers that marked it as a subspecies Elliot couldn’t place. An unhinged, serpentine jaw took the place of the bird’s head, rows of sharp, carnivorous teeth, filed to points by evolutionary predation.
The bird fluttered again. It gave a vain buck in an attempt to remove itself from the head of its predator. The serpentine jaw locked down, severed its torso in half. The lower section fell free, splashed into the water beneath it. Elliot heard the sound of hollow bones crunching from the corner of the room. The serpentine head she saw, gave way to a thick, snake like body. Near its rear-end, two feet, like those of a bat, clung to a protruded section of the ceiling.
Without warning, it dropped from the ceiling, swooped down on scaled wings with the headless carcass in its maw. It shined with the neon-green of the glow-wands, a hint of wet silver beneath it. It circled the area once, its flight silent, swallowed the top-half of the bird. It shrieked with a terrible, high-frequency rasp that pierced the cavern with a shrill echo. Elliot hugged her ears as Liana winced beside her. The team stirred. Flaps flew open, Raymond called to Elliot as the creature dove into the water, disappeared.
She toward the pool with Liana, stared down at the water. It was thick; clouded with sediment from a fast departure. The bird’s blood streamed from its top-half that floated on the surface, separated to blend with the water and follow the current the creature had made.
Raymond appeared beside them, glow-wand in hand to survey the water, “What was that?”
Liana watched the sediment drift, “I don’t know, but I don’t like the feeling it gave me.”
“It’s obvious we’re dealing with some new species of marine creature,” Anthony said as he stared at the pile of lighted torches.
Chad paced back and forth behind him, nervous. Raymond was still examining the corner where the creature had been perched, his water-proof flashlight splayed across it. Liana and Elliot stood behind him to scour the beam’s expanse with their eyes. It landed on an edge of rock that jutted outward beyond the others in the wall. Deep imprints had been left by four, small, talon-like claws.
“Evolved with avian characteristics, I’d think,” Raymond said, looking over the marks.
Anthony continued, “It’s not that far of a stretch. I mean, the whole reason we suspected it was here was the new zoophyte species from the Black Sea. It was only a matter of time before we came in contact with something.”
He stood, stepped past Chad’s nervous route for his tent. He rifled through a plastic back inside, emerged a moment later with a field-notebook, and sat close to the torches to sketch an approximation of the creature Elliot had described.
He called her over, showed her the notebook, “Is this right?”
“ A meter, head to feet?”
“One– one and a half, maybe. But it had a tail, blunt at the end.”
“Catch the light off the scales?” He asked.
“Briefly. Not serpentine. More… reptilian. And Plated.”
He thought for a moment, looked past her to Raymond’s light on the ceiling.“So it’s a lizard, with the head and body of a snake, scaled-wings, and likely webbed, clawed feet.”
“Webbed?” Elliot asked as she watched Chad pace back at forth.
He explained logically, “Nothing can move that fast in water without webbing. I think we can deduce its not poisonous either, or we’d have never heard the struggling– unless the bird’s somehow immune. But let’s think horses before zebras. Either way, It’s dangerous– it couldn’t kill us, but even alone it could do a lot of damage.”
Chad’s nerves made his tone crack, “I doubt that it’s alone all the time.”
“It won’t bother us,” Raymond assured him as he returned form the water’s edge. Liana remained their, half-focused on the conversation as she stood sentinel over the water. “It has predators– likely larger in size than us, at least matured.”
Chad said shook is head, “Great! Just magnificent! Fuck!”
“What’d you expect Chad,” Elliot asked. “A welcoming party? Maybe Big iguanas? A thirty foot herbivore? No, it isn’t that kind of world in there.”
Anthony grimaced, “Chad’s sorta’ got a point, we should’ve brought some protection.”
Lianan turned for the group, “You did. You brought me.”
Chad was caustic, “You honestly think you can protect all of us, unarmed?”
“Who said I was unarmed?” She countered,
Elliot was instantly furious, “What?” Liana’s face was blank, indifferent. Elliot scolded here, “We came here to look for this place, not destroy it. That thing’s evolved independent of us for millions of years, and your first instinct’s to kill it?”
“I fail to see your point,” Liana admitted. Elliot glared. Liana crossed her arms, stern but calm, “I was hired to keep the four of you alive. If an animal must to die to fulfill that duty, I don’t care how important it is. I’m sure you won’t either if the time comes.”
Elliot growled, threw her head back. Liana had a point. She fumed, “I’m less angry about that damn it! But it means you’ve been carrying extra weight this whole time.”
Liana was puzzled. Elliot’s response and rebound was hardly what she expected. She looked between the stunned faces, landed once more on Elliot’s. A question emerged on her face.
Elliot answered without provocation, “Our lines, our gear– everything is load-tested. Eighteen Kilos of gear a piece isn’t some arbitrary number. There are limits for a reason. These lines are tested to five body weights and eighteen extra Kilos a piece. That’s it.”
“How much extra gear do you have?” Anthony asked.
“Twenty extra Kilos?” Anthony replied, irate.
“How could you even carry that?” Raymond asked seriously.
Chad threw up his hands, returned to pacing, “We’re screwed.”
He repeated his words over and over, paced faster.
“Twenty kilos!” She with a fast step at Liana. “Twenty kilos over the mark, on old rope. We’ve been getting by on luck this whole time.”
Liana hung her head with a small shake, “I…I’m sorry. I didn’t think-”
“No, you didn’t!” Elliot spat. She turned back to her tent.
Anthony eased back toward his sketch-book, ate an energy bar as he stared at his drawing.
Raymond stepped beside Liana, hoping to ease her embarrassment, “I still don’t know how you managed to carry it so easily.”
Her upper-lip stiffened, “Training.”
She swiveled on-heel, returned to her tent. After a time, the group fell back into silent sleep, save Elliot who couldn’t sleep at all. Even so, no-one slept well; too nervous or agitated otherwise. Elliot laid awake for a few hours, before she gave up, left her tent. Another, quiet rustle– furtive and human– emitted from within Liana’s tent. The flap hung half-open, enough that Elliot could peer inside from a short distance away. Through the dim-light, she saw Liana arranging gear from her personal pack. The contents appeared to be an assortment of machinery parts, as well as a few small boxes, and a few lumps of white clay. She watched Liana assemble a few of the parts into a pistol, bent around to get a better look.
Her foot slid out from beneath her, and she fell face first into the flap with a swear. Liana had turned fast with the gun aimed out. She pointed it upward, away, then lowered it back to the floor of the tent.
Elliot’s cheeks and ears reddened, “Sorry.” She waited a moment before she eased to her feet through the now-unzipped flap.
Liana kept her attention affixed to the back, “As am I– I do not wish to be eaten.”
“No, I–” Elliot sighed, sat beside her. “I meant about earlier. I won’t lie, I was pissed. Still am a little, but I’m mostly worried for your safety.”
Liana exhaled a short burst of air from her nose, “Worried for me?”
Elliot replied earnestly, “Yes. I was afraid of who they would send. A lot can go wrong when you’re diving like this. We dig together a lot, it requires a lot of this type of climbing, so we’re ready if something goes wrong. They could have sent anyone. That person may not have been ready. But you were when Anthony slipped– and you did it carrying more than your weight.”
“It is what I was hired to do,” Liana said callously, as she pulled boxes from her pack.
“Maybe. But it seemed like an instinct to work as a team.”
“I’ve been extensively trained to do so,” she replied, her words mechanical.
Elliot shrugged, “I guess I’ll take that then. I just wanted to say, sorry I was an asshole.”
She left left Liana’s tent, returned to her own. There was an obvious guilt that swirled within her from the she’d snapped at Liana. She couldn’t allow her momentary anger to become a problem in the future. An apology was the only thing that might help avoid that. Whether or not Liana accepted it, at least she’d tried. In the wake of the creature’s discovery, she needed everyone at their best, ready to act whatever the situation or context. Not spiteful, resentful, or terrified.
So far, things weren’t going well.