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Nannion

By Andreas Androutsellis-Theotokis

Copyright 2016 Andreas Androutsellis-Theotokis

Smashwords Edition, License Notes

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

This is a work of fiction. Any names or characters, businesses or places, events or incidents, are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.

Contents

Preface

Prologue: A Bottom-Up Approach to Keeping Things Alive

Chapter 1: Nannion, the Unlikely Athenian Cat

Chapter 2: Dioptra has Changed

Chapter 3: The Brothers Hypnos and Thanatos

Chapter 4: The Three Abyssal Sister Lakes

Chapter 5: Alive in Brine

Chapter 6: Frank’s Long Jump

Chapter 7: Frank’s Wet Evening

Chapter 8: Nannion’s Birthday Present

Chapter 9: Toes in the Water

Chapter 10: J-Cap’s Complicated Upbringing

Chapter 11: Watermelon in the Hole

Chapter 12: Showdown at the Cafeteria

Chapter 13: Frank’s Visions

Chapter 14: Frank’s Escape

Chapter 15: Frank and Fish

Chapter 16: A Motley Visit

Chapter 17: Meni and Mari on the Aquarium

Chapter 18: An Intense Cabbage Smell…

Chapter 19: Nannion’s Long Walk Back

Chapter 20: Deep and Surface Expeditions

Chapter 21: The Spy Monitors

Chapter 22: Meni Talks to Frank

Chapter 23: What’s Wrong with Mari?

Chapter 24: Fresh, Tanked Air

Chapter 25: The Sacrificial Camera

Chapter 26: Phone Call

Chapter 27: These are Lots of Fish, Here

Chapter 28: The Breach

Chapter 29: Let Them Go?

Chapter 30: Retreat and Ponder

Chapter 31: Jelly Eyes

Chapter 32: A Challenging Plan

Chapter 33: A Change of Guards

Chapter 34: Introducing Claire

Acknowledgments

About the Author

Connect with Andreas

Preface

When you are primed for work, with gears greased and a big appetite for output, finding yourself unemployed is far from optimal. I had just finished a ten year research stint in the USA during which I lived the “work hard, party hard” mantra to the full extent that my personality allowed, anyways. It was time to go back home, to lovely Athens, Greece.

You should visit Athens, it is a brilliant and bizarre city. It doesn’t sleep. It is a joy walking the most pristine and elegant streets; it is sometimes even more fun loitering her more run down parts, those that are being subjected to fast-track evolution by the subset of society that likes to make things happen.

Unfortunately, this creative subculture isn’t running things. The country fell into financial disarray and my plans to flourish back home oozed down some Athenian storm drain spilling its contents probably close to the Piraeus port where huge boats and superb sea food co-exist.

Jobless and antsy, the brain drifted its own way. One day, I chose to follow. The word count of that story was generated very spontaneously. The characters basically wrote the story themselves and I was there simply to put their mischief onto laptop screen.

One day, five years later (with job, for the last four, thankfully), it was suddenly completed. Fin!

I called that story “Oikos Nannion” and I used the pen name “Elous Telma” for practical and artsy-smarty reasons.

What now?

My buddy, Steve, said, try Bewildering Stories.

I did. And they said, OK.

Then the tutoring started. Feedback, edits, weekly insight, email exchanges. This was enormously educational and exciting fun. Don Webb, the Editor, alone was like a school for an aspiring writer.

Thanks, Don.

Wonderfully, Oikos Nannion was given a lovely honor at Bewildering Stories, being one of the submissions to receive the “Mariner Award”.

Once done, Don said I should now have fun with the story. And I did, working on it for many months, and upgrading it enough that I decided to change its title from “Oikos Nannion” to the shorter and easier, “Nannion”.

I was going to say, I hope you enjoy it. But, in truthfulness, I really hope you see my thoughts and we find common ground. Then we connect – like some of the characters in the story - whoever you are and wherever you may be. Maybe you will feel like letting me know; that would be most welcomed.

I do hope you enjoy it!

Andreas

Prologue: A Bottom-Up Approach to Keeping Things Alive

You will be reading about an off-white, cream colored cat, originally from Athens, Greece. She is really good at getting donations of great sea food from the touristy downtown areas of this vibrant city. One day, Nannion’s love for seafood and docile nature got her into a bit of a pickle and she ended up stranded alone on a small deserted island in the southern waters of Greece.

A few tens of meters from where she had inadvertently found herself, in the open waters of the Aegean Sea, other animals live their life cycle at the opposite extreme of the geographical scale. There are animals that live on a truly global scale and make use of much of the earth in their travels. Whales, birds, even some large sharks. The humpback whale makes a round trip of twenty-six thousand kilometers every year. Earth’s circumference is forty thousand kilometers.

Earth is not infinitely large and, throughout human history, people have sensed its physical limitations. Some thought you could fall off the edge of the Earth if you travelled too far; now we know you just go in circles.

Mythology has always speculated about what might lie beyond our known world. We are natural explorers, and our nature may come not only from an academic desire for knowledge but also from our condition as residents of a finite ecosystem; we feel choked. Wars speak to this point. As a species, humans are fascinated with the idea of habitable space. No wonder, then, that major efforts to discover life outside Earth are being funded graciously.

***~~~***

One such major effort was the 1976 NASA mission to Mars. On that year, they landed a research station called Viking, packed with instruments that would determine if life was Earth’s exclusive privilege, or not. There was a lot of hype for this mission, and all of it was due to the prospect of finding life on the Red Planet.

Unfortunately, no conclusive signs of life were detected, meaning that either Mars was likely sterile, or the tiny spot on which Viking landed was sterile and devoid of any biochemical indicators of life. Scientists don’t like negative results. In this case, the public didn’t either. Within the scientific community, huge debates were ignited. Are these results definitive? Are the detectors good enough? Should we try again?

How do you detect life? Even if the detector works perfectly, do you know that what it measures can prove or disprove life? To settle the score, a replica of the Viking instruments was taken to a river teaming with life, here on Earth, and the machine declared it also sterile. We had just realized we did not know how to define life, not just on Mars, but also here on Earth.

A child could determine better than NASA instruments whether life exists in a river. But the child uses experience, not objective criteria; he can also be fooled by, say, a robot, the wind through a bush, or the imagination. NASA was measuring the presence of particular chemical bonds, but whether these are proof of life or necessary for all types of life was a different issue.

***~~~***

Every now and then, we are compelled to assume that the presence of some chemicals we find outside Earth require life to be produced, but then some able chemist shows how that is not necessarily the case. All sorts of exotic chemistry can, in principle, generate catabolic and anabolic reactions.

The catabolic reaction releases energy and gets the organism going. Then the organism builds larger molecules using anabolic reactions. Eventually, it builds tissues from small molecules. Together, catabolism and anabolism constitute metabolism, a necessity for life as we understand it here on Earth.

Like naïve children, adults also rely on experience to define life and death. A meteor that originated in Mars was examined in the mid-1990s by electron microscopy. Shapes resembling ultra-tiny fossilized bacteria were found. Many immediately convinced themselves that these structures were indeed fossilized bacteria.

Whatever those structures were, they sure looked like bacteria. But that line of thought has also convinced some people that the Loch Ness monster also exists. To this day, there is no conclusive evidence whatsoever that these structures are not simply tiny bits of rock.

***~~~***

Proving that something is alive is a formidable challenge. Proving something is dead is oftentimes just as hard. In fact, we recognize life and death mostly by experience and less by a defined set of rules. A dead man is a dead man, and we think we can recognize this, but then again, it takes a group of doctors with extensive medical training to call you dead or alive.

Making the distinction is a demanding task and mistakes do happen. They used to put cords into coffins, connected to bells outside the grave in case wrongly presumed deceased people regained consciousness and found themselves buried alive by their loved ones.

In many cases, our gut feeling is pretty good: If you blend a man into small pieces, more often than not, you will kill him. If you blend a flatworm into small pieces, though, you may get many new flatworms.

The current record stands at about 280 pieces of a single flatworm, each being able to regenerate a new, healthy animal. These are flatworms of the genus Planaria; tiny, well-formed creatures with a front and a back and a pair of eyes, which exhibit extraordinary regenerative capacity and which comprise a favorite research tool of many labs around the world.

With flatworms, it takes a biologist to call death, and even so, it can be hard to tell. And if you ask what happens to the flatworm’s soul: does it split from one into many, or does it remain a unit of entangled souls? One may posit there is no answer. Ask a flatworm priest.

Or watch videos of human cells of the immune system, isolated from the body and placed on a Petri dish, moving around and searching for bacteria to engulf and eat. Even to the trained eye, it is hard to distinguish such behavior from that of an amoeba in a petri dish. In a way, we, too, can be split into constituent parts, and these can continue their life independently, presumably without stealing any part of our soul.

Most of the criteria we apply to define life are not unique to living organisms. The ability to replicate, for example, is also seen in underwater molten rock formations, where bubbling lava hardens in the water, trapping biological molecules in them. The next rock bubble may become connected to the previous one by a tiny crack through which biologicals can be exchanged. These molecules may be capable of replicating themselves through chemical reactions, thus populating new rock bubbles over many cycles. We don’t feel this example of replication constitutes life.

***~~~***

We are basically not equipped to define life. We are only able to recognize life forms that are similar to us, by extrapolating the perception of our own life. We still make mistakes. How will we discover life outside the Earth if we cannot even perceive what it may be like?

By the same token, have we discovered all life form types here on Earth? We are still debating the existence of nanobacteria. These would be ultra-tiny bacteria, much like the supposed fossilized one on the Martian meteor. They seem able to incorporate some molecules used in the DNA chain, but this is more likely just a chemical reaction happening within these little structures. They can get calcified, giving them a shell similar to the hard shells of many animals, but this may have nothing to do with life. Instead, they appear to be complex inanimate objects able to contribute to kidney stone formation.

After all this confusion about our own Earthly nanobacteria, how can we even hypothesize that we have found fossilized nanobacteria on a meteor from Mars? On Earth, as in the Heavens, life is a difficult thing to detect.

***~~~***

All these arguments about the possible existence of life outside the Earth relate to life that is similar to life on Earth. This is life that is inextricably linked to water — water as a component of the life form as well as its environment. Water provides physical support to the organisms and it acts as a solvent for many compounds, allowing them to form chemical interactions among themselves and build the life form.

There are constraints that limit what a life form can be like – at least the ones we know of. Yes, there is immense variety of creatures but they all share the same general systems that give them life and the ability for their lineage to exist. If you know any artists, ask them to imagine an alien life form. Most, if not all, will not be able to come up with anything that is not directly based on animals found on Earth.

Even Hollywood and folklore rely on unusual animals for inspiration for their monster characters. Uninspiringly, many textbooks depict imaginary residents of the salty water oceans under the ice crust of Europa, the moon of Jupiter as common jellyfish here on Earth. This is indeed reasonable, but perhaps not very original.

Imagine, now, an alien life form that lives in a water-free environment. Perhaps something that lives in lakes of hydrocarbon and ammonia. Such environments may allow catabolic and anabolic reactions. Such lakes have been discovered on the surface of Titan, the largest of the moons of Saturn. There is a chance to discover life, and we cannot even imagine how it might look or behave. If we come across it, it will be critical not to miss it.

If you take a petri dish coated with agar — seaweed-based food for bacteria — and leave it open in the air to give bacteria a chance to land on it, for every bacterial species that manages to grow and form a visible dot-shaped colony, maybe a thousand will fail. We really don’t know how to culture most organisms, including most bacterial species.

***~~~***

Imagine trying to culture complex life. Imagine trying to keep a giant squid in a tank: how would you go about it? Now, you could go out in the ocean, catch one, put it in a tank, and hope that the food you give it, together with all other aspects of its artificial environment — temperature, pressure, salinity, organic material content, fluctuations in all these parameters, etc. — are just right for it to live. But we know so little about these animals that we can forget about this option.

Another approach is being investigated in New Zealand and elsewhere. Sample ocean water, which contains microscopic plankton of the giant squid, and keep it in the lab. Just make sure the conditions in the tank are similar to those where you sampled the water. And hope for the best.

The advantage here is that there are probably thousands of its planktonic counterparts for every one adult giant squid in the ocean. They, at least, solve the problem of acquiring start-up material. You don’t need to go out in the ocean and catch a giant squid; you can grow a giant squid in a matter of weeks in these special fish tanks.

Of course, as the squid grows, its needs change. We don’t know what these new needs are. Maybe the squid needs deep waters, colder temperatures, alternating warm water/low pressure and cold water/high pressure. The squid dies when it is still just inches long.

Maybe increasing the size of the tank would help. That would provide more parameters, such as more temperature and pressure options. As it grows, the squid can chose its own environment and alter its food by moving into deeper waters or changing its diet, according to its new needs. When it comes to vivaria, the bigger, the better.

***~~~***

Our story is inspired by all these observations and mysteries. It starts developing its mythology some time following the end of War World II, when much of the West craved peace but also big ideas: Back in the 1950s, an international team of oceanographers pitched the idea of building a very big aquarium, to provide new possibilities for what might grow in it.

Sea creatures would have so much space they would essentially be free. Visitors would be confined in glass-walled structures inside the aquarium, while scientists would have control of the ecology and be able to pursue a wide range of marine biology studies.

The aquarium would be two kilometers in diameter and another two kilometers in depth. And the scientists already had a location.

Chapter 1: Nannion, the Unlikely Athenian Cat

Nannion started her life as a typical, modern cat in downtown Athens about six months before she was given her ancient Greek name. As is common with Athenian kittens, her father was unknown to her. She did quite well in fending for herself, having learnt all necessary skills from her mother, who was grey and white. Nannion was almost all white. More accurately, she was of a somewhat dirty-looking whitish-creamy hue. Some of it was actual dirt.

Within months from birth, she was able to handle the busy streets of the Monastiraki prefecture at the center of Athens, safely crossing streets, hunting prey, avoiding dogs, using parked cars as cover, and begging locals and tourists for scraps of food. A certain large, dominant male may have been her father, as they shared the rather unusual light-colored coat. She followed him once out of curiosity for a few blocks to a fish restaurant he had found, one with a particularly cat-friendly staff.

She never forgot the first time she tasted fish and octopus. She had walked behind him at a distance of a few parked cars when the smell hit her. She sprinted to the food, blowing her cover, and ate straight from the male’s tin container. He let her enjoy her meal, only scolding her with his paws on the top of her head if he deemed her too distracting, a gesture she didn’t even register. There was enough seafood to share.

Nannion would regularly return to that little fish tavern. She eventually discovered other sea food restaurants and expanded her repertoire accordingly. She figured out how to entice customers to give her morsels of food — no bread! — without annoying them or the waiters too much. She would then hop into the archaeological site of the ancient Agora to digest and sleep, with the Parthenon on top of the Acropolis hill as the backdrop.

The Parthenon, especially when lit up at night, was a treat to her eyes as much as it was to the tourists and the locals, who never got bored of it. It was, in fact, appreciated by most cats in the area. In the safety of the enclosed gardens around the Parthenon, they almost never sit facing away from it. Outside the fence they may prefer to face towards pedestrian traffic.

***~~~***

The day she was christened was the day her love of fish and her goodhearted nature landed her into an enormous heap of trouble. Too young for her procreation urges to kick in, she was driven by her other instinct, manifested as an uncontrollable urge for fish.

A freshly oven-baked swordfish dish brought her to one of the taverns she frequented. The dish was particularly enticing — no sauces, no over-spiced creations. Just a beautiful fillet of swordfish, olive oil, oregano, and lemon, which she had no use for. It had been ordered by an apparently mild-mannered white-haired lady.

Two meows and a gentle slap at the ankles of the mature woman and she had a chunky morsel under the table. Then another, and one more. She was so content that she even gave the ankles a little head rub. Then she climbed on the chair next to the lady, who was now not eating alone anymore.

That is when Nannion got her name on a sunny January day. The lady dipped two fingers into her glass of water and passed them onto the kitten’s head; she streaked the water downwards along her nose. “You are now called ‘Nannion’,” she said.

Nannion licked her fingers to help wash down the fish, and she received a small plate with water in it next to where she was sitting. Nannion was fed, watered, and baptized, all within a few minutes of meeting the gentle human. She purred.

***~~~***

The older lady knew Greek history. No one is called Nannion in modern-day Greece, and few were called that back in ancient times. She loved that name and she had just found an opportunity to give it.

The ancient Nannion was a prostitute. Her story was known to archaeologists but was not taught in schools. Nannion was a loaded name. It sounds gender-neutral, and, therefore, diminutive, suggesting a degree of affection.

This socio-grammatical habit has persisted in modern-day Greece: A common way of generating the diminutive form of a female name involves neutralizing it, as in MariaMaraki. Such was the affection shown for the position of Nannion and other concubines in ancient Athens.

During the 2004 Olympic Games preparations, digs in Marathon unearthed her working quarters. Clients would easily find her house, because her name was inscribed on the outer wall. They would then enter a small courtyard where they could sit and wait for their turn. There was a single tree in it and a watering can which survived to 2004 and is now a museum piece. It is interpreted that clients were considerate enough to tend to Nannion’s tree, while waiting for her services.

***~~~***

“I was going to give this to my granddaughter, Nannion”, said the old lady who took a touristy name badge out of her jacket. “I was going to inscribe something grandmotherly and smart for her but, given this unexpected rite, I am going to give this to you”. So she took a pen, pressed it hard onto the tag and formed the name Nannion on it.

She placed the tag over the cat’s neck.

“That’s it; a proper ritual. You are now Nannion”, she said. “But let me keep this tag for you before you lose it, OK?”

And so, the old lady, responsibly, put the name tag back into her jacket’s pocket.

She finished her meal, paid, and got up. She picked up Nannion, who was a bit startled, and she spoke to her. She actually asked Nannion something. Nannion didn’t really react or understand what she said, but wasn’t too afraid and didn’t try to run away.

The little cat found herself inside a car parked on a small side street in Athens, and half an hour later she was on a large passenger boat. This alarmed her. In the morning they got off on an island. They were at a small port, and all sorts of cats had gathered to wait for the fishermen and their early morning catch. They had lined up at the edge of the pier waiting for the small wooden fishing boats. Daily treats were coming their way. This did look like a cat paradise.

But Nannion hadn’t quite grasped what was going on, nor had the fishermen arrived yet for her to see raw fish up close. She stood still next to the old lady who was the only familiar being in sight. She was picked up by the lady and they were now into a small boat, just the two of them, travelling on the sea. Sometime later, they reached a deserted island, a place equally strange to cats and humans.

The seclusion of this place did not escape Nannion, who had been born and raised in the remarkably busy center of Athens. Here, there were no other cats or humans. There was sea all over. There was water on one side of the land and water on the other. There were some buildings all grouped in one location, and she thought maybe she should run inside one of them. But they looked ominous, and she knew you shouldn’t go inside an enclosed space without first having figured out an exit strategy.

The old lady wasn’t paying much attention to Nannion. Instead, she was busy bringing an inflatable toy boat she had brought along from the ocean side to the waters within the island. This wasn’t an easy task for an old lady, and the little flimsy inflatable boat hit the ground more than once, scratching on the rough pavement of dirt and rocks.

Nannion was a bit overwhelmed and felt exposed. The sky started feeling way too heavy. She sat down feeling its weight on her back, unable to move and a little distressed.

This island was shaped like a hollow ring. The center was another sea, and the old lady had moved the boat into those inner waters. She picked Nannion up and, within a few moments, they were clear of the shore. From her low vantage point, Nannion could see a vast sea and some radial structures on the water surface converging far from where they were.

The old lady had not brought a motor; she was rowing the boat instead. She had brought along a glass box to help her see underwater without the need to wear a mask and dip her head into the water.

Nannion watched her, and she watched the waters and the waves that moved the frail little boat. She was well outside her comfort zone, and visceral fear was creeping into her. Suddenly, the old lady turned around and in panic moved to the back of the boat.

Bubbles were coming out from under the boat; they were sinking. Nannion recognized the fear in the old lady and knew she was in enormous trouble. She wanted to get to dry land, but that meant she would have to swim a vast distance. She had never been in the water before. The woman did her best to paddle the boat towards the shore. Nannion could tell her intention was to get closer to dry land, but progress was slow.

Nannion was shocked when she saw the old lady falling backwards into the waters as the back of the toy boat sunk under her weight. The frail lady was not going to be saving any cats, on that day.

Is she dead? Nannion wondered as the human did not surface right away. No help would be coming Nannion’s way. She stayed on the vessel until there was only a tip of the inflatable sticking out of the water. That literarily took seconds to happen. There was just enough boat above the water to give a push and throw herself into the waters.

She had no idea how to deal with water. She went under the surface and assumed that was it; she thought she would just keep going further down. But she also started running — that was the only technique she knew — towards the shore. She found herself - sort of - swimming. She kept her nose above the water, and it really seemed she was getting closer to the shore.

Panic neutralized exhaustion to a useful degree, but this was a demanding exercise for her. The waters were dark, way deeper than she could have imagined, and she couldn’t tell what else was in these waters. She didn’t know that delicious fish lived in the water. She was a downtown cat. She thought fish came from the seafood restaurant.

Island cats know where fish come from, because they see them swimming in the shallow waters in the port. Some try catching them, too. But Nannion knew more about cars than nature. From inside the waters, Nannion must have been a sweet and pitiful sight: A little six-month old white kitten with poor swimming technique displacing an enormous amount of water desperately trying to reach the land.

Although she couldn’t see anything under the surface because the waters were deep and disturbed, these were crisp clear Greek waters, and the sun was bright and warm even though it was only a few days after Christmas. She must have been easy to spot from within.

Nannion had already worked out a swimming technique that, although inefficient, kept bringing her closer to the shore. Big frantic movements of all her limbs, lowered ears, careful breathing through the nose, mouth tightly shut, eyes wide open.

Without quite understanding how it happened, she suddenly found herself in the air, easily a meter and a half high. She must have hit something solid and her frenzied pace and strength had propelled her towards the skies.

Again, she found herself splashing into the water and went under. Now she was sure she wasn’t alone, and she realized she could experience even more fear than she already had. Her pace became more frantic, then faster still, and she splashed a very impressive amount of water for a little Athenian cat.

Most of Nannion’s senses were blocked off; fear was numbed and all her energy was consumed in getting out of the water. Unable to observe her progress properly, she suddenly found herself facing a vertical wall of dry land. Thankfully for her, it was only a foot high; she climbed it on her first attempt. She was out!

Nannion kept going for a few meters and she turned around to make sure she was nowhere near the water. After a couple of frantic turns, she lay down, exhausted and wet, facing the waters that had given her such horror. The sun was gorgeous and a blessing. This was a warm day, around 20 degrees Celsius, not unusual in the islands of the Greek south, but the waters were cold, and she was a soaking-wet kitten.

After a little while, she got up and started looking around for water, food, and shelter. She had seen the buildings but, unlike those in Monastiraki, these didn’t have restaurants in them. She could tell her ordeal was not over yet.

Deep waters and desolate terrains were foreign to her, but buildings… She had a knack for those. Like a feline architect, she could predict entry points just by taking a quick look. One was all she needed and she found it.

Very unlikely for a human to squeeze through, she thought

The building was a bit scary, abandoned and quiet as it was. But she traded some discomfort for cover, away from those waters that had caused her so much distress.

There was more sunlight coming from upstairs where large windows had been placed to brighten bedrooms. She climbed onto the ledge of a window and that proved to be a great observation point with a direct view towards the inner waters, the ones that were still soaking her coat.

Something was moving on the surface of those waters. Something white was bobbing along the little waves. Was that the old lady? Had she made it?

Was Nannion mad at her for getting her into so much trouble, so far away from the nearest restaurant?

Chapter 2: Dioptra has Changed

Humanity has dug some big holes. Some are already abandoned. Diamond mines are often deep and, when they give up all the easily found diamonds, they are left unused and useless. Unlike mines dug for toxic metals, such as copper, they may be chemically quite safe.

A remarkable one was located on a small, uninhabited island called Dioptra, on the Greek waters. After WWII, Greece had agreed to ‘sacrifice’ the island, west of Crete, in order to dig a diamond mine to help with rebuilding the country.

This plan resulted in an extraordinary structure, because the island was not much bigger than the hole. Imagine a tiny rock island that you scoop out almost entirely. There was just a strip of land left so that you could walk around it, and a slightly wider section where a small port and a few buildings were located.

One building housed the workers; the other, the offices of the mine company. Another was used as a workshop for the vehicles and equipment. Material from the cave wasn’t processed there; it was simply collected and shipped to the main port of Piraeus, about 300 kilometers away, in the Athens urban area.

The island was fairly round in shape. At two kilometers in diameter, the circumference was about six kilometers. Diamonds could be found anywhere in the soil. The idea was simply to dig, and then sieve and search. The deeper the better. The task proved to be difficult, because the terrain was mostly rock. On the other hand, the hole could be dug deep, since the hard rock prevented the walls from collapsing.

A broad spiral road about 50 meters wide was carved on the edge of the hole to let large trucks and equipment move up and down. The spiral road, from top to bottom, was approximately the length of a Marathon course. The floor of the hole provided an additional flat surface, about three football fields in width.

Diamond dividends helped Greece, but diamond mines are not forever. Eventually, the quarry was depleted. With no more diamonds to help in the post-war recovery of the country, Greece was happy to convert the hole into anything that would bring in — within dignified reason — some money.

An unusual idea was proposed: to turn the hole into a marine biology center with international funds and research grants flowing in. Such ideas came with the peaking of entrepreneurial spirits in the 1950s. A large international consortium started work on the carved island. First, the original buildings were torn down to make room for the new research facilities, accommodations for researchers and personnel, a water processing plant, a visitor center, an amphitheater, and a new, small port to bring visitors in.

***~~~***

This proved very convenient to Nannion who, decades later, had found herself taking shelter in one of these rooms. She even had a comfy bed to sleep on, as soon as she would dry off. But first, she had to figure out what was with that bobbing white head in the water.

The old lady had proven to be a remarkably resilient senior citizen with really good swimming skills. She had cheated death by infarction by calming herself down during her confrontation with pending doom. She was able to float gently as if sleeping on a mattress, belly-up. Focusing on avoiding a heart attack, or a panic attack – she couldn’t tell – she chose to do nothing else for a while. From the corner of her eye she had seen the cat fending for herself.

The cat, she thought. Will she make it?

Time later, composed and determined, she started swimming towards the shore, gently, slowly, and with the most efficient technique she could implement. Exactly unlike the hectic furry mess that was ahead of her, about to be propelled into the air.

We are not alone, then.

Evidently they weren’t. And she had a long way to the shore. Eventually, Nannion had made it out, on her first attempt at climbing onto dry land.

Good girl! My turn.

Her turn, indeed. With a long way ahead to the shore.

This was not the first time she had been on this begotten island. In fact, many years ago she used to live there, along with other scientists who were passionately conducting this unprecedented biological experiment. But it was the first time she had swam into its inner waters. When she said they were not alone, she had a scientifically grounded idea of what she was talking about.

Oh, God.

To panic, under such circumstances, is to die. To face your fears is the only way out. That’s what Marcus Aurelius, one of her favorite stoic philosophers, could have said.

Nannion watched her from her new room; it could have been the same one the old lady used back in the day. But, actually, it wasn’t. The lady’s room was down the corridor, although she had spent one single night in Nannion’s, years ago, during friskier times…

While floating onto dark waters, the lady’s mind was spontaneously going over the history of that place, reminding her of the data she and her colleagues had gathered: thriving, large organisms developing new features, now probably lurking under her feet.

But they didn’t take the cat.

It was alarming nonetheless. She chose to face her situation. She let her brain relive all details of the waters in full scientific detail. This was her turf, and she would saturate herself with familiarity and coziness, leaving no room for fear.

This is my home. I am swimming in my pool because I want to.

She moved gently through the water. Her movements were slow – speed was not the savior factor, anyway.

***~~~***

She remembered when the two kilometer deep hole was filled with sea water through gigantic pipes, generating what must have been one of the most impressive sights ever created by human activity. The Press and members of Parliament were present and mesmerized.

When all was filled, sea water from different depths was sampled, kept under pressure, and released at the same depths to inoculate the Aquarium with plankton, bacteria, and larvae from all ocean strata. This was repeated during different times of the year. Eventually, glass observation cubes were lowered into the water.

Throughout its operation, the science effort developed an international status, turning it into a new entity of nondescript nationality. The sovereignty was, of course, Greek, but it had the vibe of a large international university. A delegation of U.N. scientists came to the island with the purpose of helping to secure this endeavor’s longevity.

As the post-war, international collaboration romance waned, the scientists were asked to pull more of their own weight, in terms of funding. But the research output was knowledge and this is not a moneymaker.

Greek tourism was on the rise, so they chose to piggyback on this new trend. Still, it would take time for any sea life to develop from the larval state to a creature worth paying a ticket price to observe.

Entrepreneurial minds came to the rescue. As the research facilities were being built, the plans for the original visitor center were replaced by more lavish ones. Gift shops, Café stores, a larger hotel were eventually built. If needed, the island could be promoted as a perfect vacation spot, with the added bonus of Earth’s largest aquarium.

Engineers and marketing personnel let their imaginations run wild, buying time for the science experiment. A swimming pool was constructed. This was placed in the hole, and its bottom was made of glass. The water supply was separate from that of the Aquarium.

For an extra ticket, visitors would be able to swim in safe waters in a pool floating on the Aquarium, with the abyss visible under their feet. On occasion, the pool was kept open at night, and a light show was introduced. This would attract interesting night life, which visitors could observe under their feet.

But, despite these efforts, the public’s excitement about the science at the hole had started to subside. While tiny creatures slowly developed under the watchful eyes of a large team of scientists, the space race had become the new big thing. The Cold War, fortified by a herd of German rocket scientists, some of whom had been acquired by the USSR and the lucky ones by the USA, was represented by the successes and failures of the space program of the two traditional enemies. Germany’s marine biologists were not considered as hot a commodity as their space-engineer colleagues.

The Biology itself sometimes failed to reach the required “hotness” factor. Little crabs, shrimp, and water fleas were collected and identified. You could fit several in your palm, and nothing about them was too impressive to the untrained eye. Even though to specialists, these were titans exhibiting gigantism, the tendency of certain life forms to grow to larger sizes than their cousins in particular environments.

The Aquarium had become a melting pot of serious science and fun. Children would play in the glass-bottomed swimming pool while scientists were tagging sharks on the research vessels a couple of kilometers away. Dance troupes would perform in the pool while angler fish hunted for food with their bioluminescent lures two kilometers below.

Before the hole was filled with water, scientists had strategically blown holes on the walls along the winding road. They assumed, correctly, that these holes could serve as useful hiding places for creatures. The 50-meter wide winding road also provided a vast surface area for life forms to rest on. Nature was successfully doing what she is best at: Keeping life going on.

At the same time, additional works kept guests excited. A large slide leading to a new swimming pool gave visitors the impression of falling into the hole itself. The strategically placed glass walls created the impression of entering the very environment of the Aquarium.

The island’s circumference provided a unique walkway and jogging path. Walkers and joggers had a strip of land, flanked by the mysterious waters of the Aquarium on one side and by the open waters of the Aegean Sea on the other.

Two new, transparent, floating walkways were built to take visitors from the shore to the center of the Aquarium. These met in a V-shape at the center of the hole, where a ring-shaped platform stood.

Visitors — four at a time, for an additional price — could enter a chamber called the “Bubble,” which was lowered a couple of hundred meters towards the bottom of the Aquarium. Visitors saw the waters darken as they descended, and the luckier ones got to see some remarkable swimming creatures.

As visitors returned to the surface, they saw daylight gradually returning. The whole trip lasted for about forty minutes, but it was such a powerful and rich experience to many that it felt like hours.

The Bubble was well maintained, and its safety was guaranteed. It was buoyant: if its lines were cut, it would resurface easily. It descended on a cable anchored at the bottom of the hole. The Bubble also had external airbags that could be deployed to bring it up quickly, in case of an emergency.

A bit of new money came in with the discovery of a black smoker. These are seeps more formally called hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor form from where heat and chemicals are released. With this soup of prime materials, sunlight is not necessary to form complex molecules; chemistry is enough. Some hydrothermal vents appear like smoke chimneys because they look like the insides of the Earth seep out. In reality, it’s just hot, dark, iron-rich material, which is also great food for chemosynthetic bacteria.

It was decided that a small one would fit nicely at the Aquarium. A kindly oil company helped them make a hole at the Aquarium floor, close to the edge, and place a pipe that would, hopefully, bring up dark raw materials.

They hit such a source, and the vent started spewing. Tectonic plates meet in the Aegean Sea and offer ample opportunity for access to such material sources. A suction vent was placed above the pipe opening to collect excess material and avoid contaminating the Aquarium. For a while, this material was collected at the surface and sent to iron ore industries.

A gorgeous little ecosystem developed nicely around it: bacteria ate the material and generated complex molecules. Worms ate the bacteria with their complex molecules and converted them to tissues. Fish, crabs, shrimp, and sea shells lived there, apparently happily for years and years, in the dark. To them, the sun was mostly irrelevant.

Like mines, hydrothermal vents are not forever, though. They eventually run out of material. For animals that cannot migrate to adjacent vents, this is a death sentence.

***~~~***

The last straw to the morale of the operation was the irony when scientists used the island as a base from which to launch their new hi-tech submersibles into the open sea close by.

The decision was made to close the place down, one day in the late 1970s. That was a sad day. To many, this was their workplace and playground. The last group of scientists spent several days debating their responsibilities to life in the Aquarium. All sorts of creatures were now thriving in the hole and, although they seemed to be doing fine, scientists wouldn’t be there to help them in case of need. The logic that prevailed was that if you abandon a zoo, you don’t leave the animals unattended in their cages.

It was agreed, then, that these animals living in the largest confined aqueous space in history, were indeed confined. In a last, non-scientific act of compassion, explosives were placed a few hundred meters from the research facilities to blow a hole at the rim of the Aquarium. This would give an exit to some creatures and would let ocean water in.

The explosives opened up a gaping hole. Suddenly, the Aquarium was no longer isolated from the Aegean Sea. The hole was not particularly large, and it only reached sea level, but some water exchange occurred, especially during windy days and when rogue waves reached the hole. For some time, and for as long as the surface of the Aquarium waters did not recede, small fish could possibly exit their confinement while larger fish from the open waters probably wouldn’t be to move through. Metal debris partially blocked the passage.

A greater urgency was placed on removing machinery from the island like the water pipes and all sorts of other easily transportable equipment. Not unlike many other paradigms of abandonment, some equipment was left behind.

The last scientists left with heavy hearts. A few went back to visit, like the retired U.S. marine biologist, who returned to see what had happened to the environment after all these years only to inadvertently get herself and a hapless kitten from Athens stranded onto this strange water land.

***~~~***

Claire, keep it together, the old lady addressed herself as she felt the first bump onto her legs. She kept her pace unchanged.

Chapter 3: The Brothers Hypnos and Thanatos

This is my home, thought the elderly scientist, Claire, as she put her face into the waters and opened her eyes.

You are dark, but crystal clear. You’re just deep; I have no fear.

She did not know what could be lurking beneath her. She only knew the potential she and her colleagues had provided during their experimentation days.

You can drown in water two meters deep; it doesn’t need to be two kilometers deep.

I am you Mother. I am the Mother of all of you, she thought facing downwards.

Don’t eat me! She raised the head out of the water and took a breath of air as she chuckled.

Or do as you need to. I am beyond such concerns, children. Whatever you do, do it respectfully, she added in strict tone.

Claire looked towards the buildings at the shore.

Nannion, are you watching?

Nannion was watching, of course. She couldn’t see much or hear anything from within the building, but she could sense everything the old lady was saying and even thinking. She had been into these waters and she had panicked herself. She appreciated someone in a dire situation striving to control their fears.

But the cat was mad as Hell at the human for bringing her into this God forsaken place; still, she was rooting for her. Regardless, Nannion wasn’t going to leave the apparent safety of her new premises.

No mammals were eaten alive on that day on that bizarre little island, the one that was so shunned by tourists who favored organized beaches, swimming pools by the sea and cocktail happy hours. The white haired human swam slowly and efficiently, conserving energy and protecting her aging body from too much pain and strain.

It took a while but she eventually reached the shore, not far from where Nannion had made it out onto dry land. In contrast to Nannion, she was in no rush to get out of the inhospitable waters. That was her statement to the creatures of the Aquarium that she had not faked her composure.

She took her time, holding herself from the dry earth and then pulled herself out of the water.

Thank you for letting both of us out, kids!

She sat down to rest and stared at the inner waters.

My, my… You did eat me, a little, didn’t you?

She spoke those words calmly as she noticed a small puddle of blood forming next to her foot.

Was it for my flavor? Or my DNA?

She took care of her wounded leg using a towel she had left at the boat that brought her and the cat to the island.

Claire showed the bloodied towel to Nannion who was standing motionless by the window, looking down towards the woman.

Nannion, I am frail and injured. I bleed, she told her, knowing that animals can take pity.

I am so sorry I brought you, here, cat. I just wanted some company and I was going to take you with me. You would be the perfect present to my granddaughter; she would have given you all the fish in the world. Now look at us.

I am going to bed, Nannion. See if you can forgive me and come down. I will not force myself up where you are. I’ve messed up enough.

Back on her little boat, Claire took a nap, giving her body time to recover. Before closing her eyes she tightened the towel that was wrapped around her leg wound as the bleeding hadn’t yet stopped.

***~~~***

With her fur dried, Claire asleep, and dusk approaching, Nannion decided to explore her new quarters. There were corridors and rooms, many of which were closed, limiting her accessible space. It was getting late and inside the building it was already quite dark. Cats see well in the dark and they don’t believe in ghosts but this one was used to busy streets and fussy sidewalks. This environment felt very foreign to her.

Trying to find anything of particular use, now that she had secured a nice bed with a strategic view to the Aquarium, she found her way to the ground floor. When she got downstairs she paused as she felt exposed; this used to be a cafeteria with a large glass store front facing towards the Aquarium. It must have been a really nice spot to have coffee in. And purchase small gifts, a few of which had been left there. Nothing attracted her attention, much. Except for a little plush toy octopus, still hanging from the toy cabinet as if waiting to be sold. She sniffed it, picked it in her teeth and ran to her bedroom. She had a little companion now to play and cuddle with when feeling lonely.

She did not realize what the toy represented. She had eaten octopus several times, but she had never seen a whole one. The irony went over her little head.

Her new inanimate friend was very, very welcome, but she couldn’t possibly stay put in her room. She needed to figure out what was going on around her, what this place was, if there was a way out. She left the room, then cautiously exited the building and went towards the Aquarium waters.

This was a barren place. There was nothing, here… Claire was still asleep. Nannion was not happy. The average human could have broken down in tears of despair in her situation. She was tough, though. And, anyway, animals tend to plough through whatever life and luck have in store for them.

***~~~***

Claire woke up but didn’t make a sound. She was feeling weak. She barely moved in the seat of her little boat. With eyes still closed, she checked the towel was not wrapped too tightly around her leg, passed her hand around her forehead as tired people tend to do, and gave out a sigh, planning to get some more rest.

Wow, I am sweaty, she thought as her forehead got wet.

It must be from the anxiety, she continued.

She concluded this because she was not feeling hot. The dry weather and open seas bring night temperatures relatively low in Greece.

Take it easy, Claire, go to sleep.

But something kept her awake. It was a metallic smell. Where was it coming from?

Oh

Claire got up, turned a flashlight on to her leg and saw her towel, originally white with floral patterns, now a completely red color.

Adrenaline is a vasoconstrictor and it helps stop bleeding. But Claire’s body didn’t produce much of it.

Whatever happens, happens, Claire, OK?

This was acceptance rather than resignation. Claire, like Nannion, was a tough one. She had travelled sick to see this place again, certainly for the last time. She took the trip alone because she had always faced fear better this way.

Now I am stuck with the cat, she joked to herself. Not so alone after all.

I’d better wash this, she posited.

She thought something had grazed her leg, causing excessive bleeding from a small wound. Some eel bites bleed a lot because of chemicals these creatures produce. Who knows what did this to her?

She couldn’t waste precious drinking water so she chose to use sea water from the open sea side of the island. She immersed her legs in the crystal-clear waters and rinsed the wound as best as she could. She scratched the wound to release any slime from the animal that bit her because sometimes, anticoagulants are embedded in saliva and saliva sticks to the wound.

What did you do to me?

It was now dark and the flashlight was necessary to gauge progress. Claire turned it on to see pink waters all around her.

She sat down, tired and a bit dizzy. She could have just fallen asleep right there. But she managed to take action, as best as she could have.

Time for superglue, she said aloud as she got up, went to her boat, dried the wound with the towel and immediately applied super glue to stop the bleeding. That seemed to work, somewhat.

But she was so pale.

Nannion, are you outside? she called. I would be outside, if I were you.

No noise was made by Nannion, who was indeed outside.

Claire moved next to the inner waters, her old laboratory. She sat down right next to them, enjoying the unique environment. She addressed Nannion.

Nannion, my weakness as a person is logistics. You know, administrative tasks. I was never good with paperwork…

By now, Nannion had started recognizing her name. Hiding behind a rock, she could see a confused Claire sitting so close to those terrible waters that had scared both of them so much just earlier on that day.

But Nannion, I took care of the logistics before my trip. I hired a lawyer and the inheritance issues are all done. I am good not to go back. This is better than the hospice awaiting for me. Alone here is OK. Am I alone?

Fierce lions in the savannahs can tell when an animal is frail and they use that ability to chase it down, kill it and eat it. Cuddly, mildly gluttonous kittens from Athens are just as good at that, having retained this evolutionary skill.

Nannion came out from behind the rock and walked towards Claire who was now laying down with her lower back and elbows on the ground, feeling heavier and heavier. The glue was not doing all that much anymore.

Hey there, again, Claire told Nannion.

The cat’s eyes were wide open as it was dark and she was so far outside her comfort zone.

This is reasonably within the general plan of paying a visit to the island of Dioptra; don’t worry too much, little one.

The little one moved close to Claire and put her right paw onto her chest who gently laid her body back onto the ground. Claire was calm and, with eyes closed, she pictured her home back in the States and her family. Two tears formed, one at the outer corner of each eye, and these attracted Nannion’s attention.

The cat watched as one of the tears was about to shed down Claire’s left cheek, right by where she was standing. She investigated it but couldn’t figure out what it was and why it was for. It wasn’t a good sign, though.

It shed and left a trail onto Claire’s cheek as it dropped onto the Earth. It got absorbed right away by the dry substrate. Nannion saw it vanish and gave Claire’s face a lick, learning that tear trails are salty.

She moved to the other side, towards the Aquarium waters, to investigate the other tear, but now there was no sign of its existence.

Where did it go? No trail…

Claire was now deep asleep. The deepest she had ever experienced.

***~~~***

Hypnos and Thanatos were twin brothers, according to Greek mythology. Hypnos means sleep and Thanatos death. Claire, able to handle the concept of demise, had often thought of her last moments and how the two brothers together could make them as peaceful as possible.

As time passed on that quiet night, her sleep became deeper and deeper. Hypnos prepared her for his brother who took her away in perfectly seamless manner. A medic would have needed to rely on scientific equipment to make the death call.

But somehow, Nannion knew immediately and she jumped back in shock as this was the very first time she felt the death of someone she cared about. Even though she had caused her all this trouble.

Nannion walked away slowly and empty. She froze at her tracks when she heard mild commotion in the Aquarium waters. She turned around and saw Claire being pulled into the Aquarium, feet first. It took her lifeless body two-three gentle but decisive pulls to make it completely disappear into the water.


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