Although Carlos was frustrated to have lost both Gwen and (without any warning at all, this time) Rashid, at least one of his newly arrived team members was here to study underwater acoustics.
He tried to sound nonchalant when he brought up the whalesong (dolphin-song? Identifying animals by underwater vocalizations wasn't his field), and Jessica was happy to give it some focus. In her effort to pin down its source, they took the boat out farther than ever, triangulating the sound waves from points where the coast was just a low stripe on the horizon. They got Sam a wider variety of plankton to study this way, too.
Turned out there was a limit to how far from the coast they could get, in that after a certain point, all the compasses on board stopped working. Not only that, they all pointed in different directions. Carlos took as many notes as he could on what must have been some kind of magnetic phenomenon none of them really understood, before the crew had no choice but to point the ship back towards town lest they become hopelessly lost.
After a week or so of this, Jessica aimed the boat towards a point at the far end of the reef, saying, "I still have no idea where this sound is coming from — it's like the source of the damn thing is exactly the same distance from wherever we stop — so what the hell, let's try here."
Naturally, Carlos decided to suit up and go down with the hydrophone. "A scientist is hands-on," he explained to the team. "That's the first thing a scientist is."
It sounded really weak when he said it out loud, but either Sam and Jessica didn't notice, or they were resigned to going along with his authority no matter what. (And, listen, why shouldn't they? He had spent months investigating the local anomalies without giving up and fleeing. They had seen enough by this point to recognize that this was impressive.)
Today the water was testing as so basic that it should have been corroding organic matter. But Carlos' skin was going to be completely covered. Besides, the fish looked fine.
He triple-checked his breathing apparatus, adjusted the strap of their brand-new state-of-the-art underwater camera, and slid with a splash into the ocean.
Exciting news today! Intern Dory — you remember, the one who went into Dogfish Cove, and was presumed horribly devoured by the hooded seals — sent me a chirp this morning!
She assures us all that she is doing fine, and the seals, while they keep inflating air sacs at her in a very disconcerting manner, have shown no sign of devouring her. However, she reports that she's getting pretty hungry. So, listeners, if you happen to have any spare chum that can be digested by a healthy bottlenose dolphin, please either pass it to an amphibious friend or, if you are yourself amphibious, haul it out onto shore and find a safe distance from which to chuck it into the cove. Dory would really appreciate it!
The Apache Trout — and I remind you that this is that really racist white steenbras who covers himself with cartoonishly offensive gold paint and spots — has announced that he has found...
...has found a...
...do you hear that?
Listeners, I...I can hardly believe what my senses are telling me! Carlos — sweet, intelligent, scientific Carlos — has descended once again from above the surface into our fair town...and he's practically right on top of me!
I tell you, listeners, if I had not already used up my government-allotted hours of unconsciousness for this quarter, I just might be passing out right now.
Not that this changes anything, of course. Contact with the human world is very strictly forbidden, and no, Steve Cuttlesberg, there is a perfectly good reason for it, so whatever anti-establishment propaganda you were about to chirp in my direction, you can cut that out right now! I do not need your misguided attempts at comfort here.
Where was I...? Oh yes: he's right there! The station headquarters from which I am broadcasting is, as you know, in a nice old-fashioned cavern across from the end of the reef, and up near the top of the reef, there he is! If I poke my head out I can see him. Every time he kicks his perfect feet I can feel the water move!
Do you think he can hear my voice right now? Do you think he likes it?
What if he decides to dive this way?
I would just have to put on a pre-recorded spot and find a place to hide. After all, as a good mer-citizen of my community, I have a duty not to be seen by any humans, but as a broadcaster I have a professional duty to —
— to —
And now it's time for Community Health Watch.
The Council for Commerce reminds you to regularly consume kelp and kelp by-products! By doing so, you are directly supporting local farmers...as well as local commodities conglomerates! Looking for a snack? Try kelp, or a kelp by-product!...
"I promise, Carlos, there is no way you can do any more adjusting on the hydrophone right now," said Jessica's voice over the radio. "Should we pull you up?"
"No!" exclaimed Carlos. "I mean, um, no, that's all right. I'll stay down for a while. Try to get some real pictures this time, you know?"
So saying, he paddled a few feet deeper, and snapped a couple of photos. Because that was definitely what he was here for.
"Can I just add," he said, after a few minutes, "that the song sounds louder than usual from here? To my ear, at least, even if the equipment isn't picking it up the same way."
"I'll make a note of it," said Jessica from above. "Don't get your hopes up too much, though. It could just mean that the rocks we're close to have really good acoustics for the point you're at."
"Understood," said Carlos. Then: "Give me some slack, will you? I want to go deeper, see if that changes anything."
"We'll get right on it."
Above him, the tether connecting Carlos to the boat began to unspool, drifting down in loose coils through the water.
He kicked his way deeper. Jewel-bright fish scattered into the shelter of the coral as he passed. Down on the sandy bottom, the diamond-shaped outline of a manta ray lifted itself out of the sand and flowed forward.
The chirruping and sonorous notes of whatever marine mammal kept vocalizing seemed to be getting higher-pitched, and perhaps faster, but not louder. As far as Carlos could tell, the only thing changing based on distance was the light, dimming slowly around him as the sun got farther away.
Down near where the rock met the sand, he caught a glimpse of movement.
It was a fish, he realized: one that wasn't swimming away from him as fast as its little fins would carry it. Carlos swam closer, expecting it to bolt any moment. Oddly, it seemed to be waving its tail back and forth, but wasn't moving as a result. The dark figure might not even be drifting in the current.
Though he had no trouble recognizing the long whiskers of a catfish, Carlos was having trouble placing the species. It reminded him of Heteropneustes fossilis, with the solid blue-black coloring and the compressed eellike body...but as he remembered, that species lived in fresh water. Specifically, South Asian fresh water.
He sure hoped he was remembering right. The species he was thinking of packed a painful sting.
The catfish glared at him as he got within ten feet of it...no, that was anthropomorphization bias. Fish didn't glare. They didn't have any of the human-type emotions that went with glaring.
And their eyes certainly didn't start glowing a dull red as they opened mouths filled with serrated silver FANGS, Madre de Dios —
The radio in his ear crackled. "Getting choppy up here. We're bringing you up."
"Yes," croaked Carlos. "Yes, okay."
A totally normal catfish watched him go. Sulkily, he thought. Irrational though that was.
Maybe he just wouldn't mention this to his team. Even if he'd just hallucinated the aquatic hellbeast, and the poor fish was nothing weirder than a transplant from a totally different biome, he hadn't gotten photos either way.
First of all, I want to apologize for running an out-of-date pre-recorded message, and to remind everyone that kelp and kelp by-products were recently banned as a major health hazard due to their mysterious habit of exploding into something that we are forbidden to recognize or name.
What is a fire, and how does it...what's the word...burn? Especially here, underwater, as all the kelp in question is? I don't know! And neither should you. If you find yourself asking questions like these, drink until you forget them.
This has been Community Health Watch.
Now, as I'm sure you're all wondering about Carlos...it would appear that Koishekh, the little rascal, scared him off. He didn't get so much as a photo.
Phew! That's one potential sticky situation avoided, huh, folks? No risk of him seeing me, now. No chance I will end up accidentally gazing into his bottomless eyes...while he reaches out in wonder to take one of my tentacles in his hand, to prove to himself that I am not a fevered dream of his, that I exist, that we are able to touch...
...none of that will happen.
What a relief...you know?
And now...the weather:
Looks like there's a real bad storm out there, coming up fast.
Please, for your safety, stay in your homes! If you have children or pets who are prone to wandering, try tying them in place until the storm passes. Just be sure to use a binding material that is not kelp. Or a kelp by-product.
"Did I lose track of time down there," said Carlos, the wind whipping at his face and sending sprays of salt water into his hair, "or did this squall come up unnaturally fast?"
"Ain't just you," said Sam. "I never seen one hit like this. Give me a hand with these boxes?"
"I'm on it," Carlos told him. "Jessica, we'll cover your stuff too — get inside and drive this thing, would you?"
"On it," said Jessica, wheeling herself in. She was more than capable under any other circumstance, but her chair was simply not designed for these conditions.
Carlos helped Sam haul several boxes of gadgets and notes safely into the cabin, then crisscrossed the deck rounding up some items and tying down others. The last thing left out was the rosette sampler, the heavy apparatus for collecting deep-water samples.
By this point the rain had started, and the boat kept hitting serious swells and jumping under their feet. Carlos' boots kept slipping on the wet deck. His hair was getting in his eyes. "Leave it!" he told Sam. "We have to get inside. It isn't worth it!"
"We got all your stuff!" yelled Sam in return. "We're gettin' mine!"
"It's not safe!" Carlos was at the cabin door. Somewhere in the distance, thunder rumbled.
Sam was clinging to a bar of the machine, trying to drag it on his own and clearly getting nowhere. "I'm —"
The boat yawed painfully to one side, as a massive wave rose up and crashed over the deck.
It was a miracle Sam didn't go overboard. Instead he knocked his head against the railing, and, once they were mostly horizontal again, slumped to the floor beside it. His life jacket was a brilliant orange against the dull white of the boat and the roaring greys of the sea and the clouds.
Carlos ran to him.
Fueled on adrenaline, he dragged Sam's semiconscious body across the slick deck. The door, left unlatched, banged with the wind and the turbulence. When a swell nudged them the right way to send the door clanging open, Carlos shoved his colleague through.
Then came the second wave.
It tossed him into the air, banged his shins on the railing as he went over, hurled him blind into the raging waters. He barely knew which way was up. His life jacket bobbed near the surface as best it could when the whole ocean seemed to be trying to punch it under.
The grinding of the boat's engine faded into the general blur.
Carlos was choking on sea water. No suit, no breathing equipment, no protection. He didn't even know which way the shore was.
He was going to drown.
As black spots appeared in his vision, his oxygen-starved brain started dredging up flashes of nonsense. The flowers in the window box at his university apartment. The gears of his father's watch spread all over the kitchen table after he took it apart. A lemon pastry he ate when he was studying abroad in Svitz. That's not the right name. What's the right name? A handful of measures from a silly song his little sister used to play over and over.
Waitin' on the boat in the rain, in the rain / waitin' on the boat in the rain / I've been waitin' for the boat as the sun came up / but the sun ain't out no more 'cause it's grey....
Wherever you are, listeners, don't move.
I'll be back soon.
waitin' for the boat in the rain, in the rain
waitin' for the boat in the rain
when the boat come?
where the boat at?
not the right boat, not the boat I need
like I do every day on my way home
waitin' for the boat in the rain
at least on the days when it's raining and I'm waitin' for the boat
'cause the other days ain't the same
I know this is a news broadcast, not Seacil's Personal Life broadcast, but I just have to talk about this.
The storm — which has passed now, and emergency workers are out in force, so if you are not directly involved in the recovery and cleanup, please stay out of the currents to make way for those who are — that damnable storm threw my poor sweet Carlos off of his boat! He was without any of his special equipment, and I could tell right away that he had not stood in a bloodstone circle and made the appropriate sacrifices to temporarily protect him against needing to breathe.
What else could I do? I jet-propelled my way up to the surface, tentacles flailing wildly in my haste. Dear Carlos must have done some ritual correctly, for his body refused to sink, even though by the time I reached him he was unmoving and —
He was alive, listeners, as I found out later, but in the moment I was so scared, I —
It's okay. I'm okay now.
Because I made sure perfect Carlos stayed alive. I got my arms around his body and made sure to hold his head above water, no matter how much it tried to wash over him. At first I thought about following the boat he had come from, but decided it would be safer for Carlos if I took him to shore instead.
He started coughing sea water along the way. That was the only way I knew he was still breathing. Humans are such delicate things....
My hyponome is still sore from all that jetting, let me tell you! But I was far too worried to slow down, and I do not regret it. At last my tentacles touched down on sand, and I used two of them to help my arms cradle my scientist's fragile body as I crawled up out of the foam. The beach was deserted, and I could have left Carlos on the dunes in safety, but what if the water levels had risen? What then?
Thankfully, the humans had had the foresight to carve winding paths up the sides of the rocky bluffs on either side. It's something to do with "cars", if you know what those are. So we went up one of those, and I found a patch of grass partly shielded by a spur of rock so that it wasn't quite as soaked as the rest of it, and I laid my precious Carlos down.
His hair, his perfect hair, was soaked through and tangled, matted with salt and sand.
And he was shivering so badly by now, listeners. Any normal mammal would build up a sensible store of fat to insulate against the cold and the wet, but Carlos has so little — if I hadn't seen other humans before, I would have thought the poor man was emaciated. What are you supposed to do when someone shivers?
...Of course there's the obvious, but I didn't have a bloodstone circle handy. It isn't as if they grow on...whatever the plants up here are called.
I did everything I could think of for him. I shielded him from the rain; I turned his head to the side when he coughed seawater so he wouldn't simply swallow it again; I watched like a hawkfish for any other signs of distress, any pains that I could ease.
And I...some of you may think this silly and sentimental, but there's this old eldritch chant my mother used to intone over my cradle when I was a little hatchling, and I translated it into several dialects of Humanish as part of my senior thesis, so...I sort of sang it. Over him. You know, to pass the time.
He probably won't remember any of it. In fact, he definitely won't! I am willing to say that under oath, if the member of the Sheriff's Secret Police hiding behind my desk would like to swear me in.
...Not necessary at this time? Great.
So. Hours later, after the pelting rain had ceased and the oily clouds had faded from the sky, Carlos was no longer coughing, but breathing what appears to be human-normal, and only shivering a little. A full moon rose above us...assuming the moon is real, and not an optical illusion, as the fact that it looked no larger up here than it does underwater would attest...and I wriggled aside, and the light fell across Carlos' face, and he was beautiful. Matted hair and all.
When he started to wake up, I left immediately.
Honest to Shub-Niggurath, I did. I will admit that I was very reluctant! But I crossed the car-path, climbed partway down the side of the rocks, watched with only the top of my head visible until I saw for certain that Carlos was getting up, and then went straight back down into the ocean, heart racing in my chest.
It's still racing now.
I don't know if it's ever going to stop.