Back to First Page

Bottom Feeders

By David Gardiner

This story may be reproduced in whole or in part for any non-commercial purpose provided that authorship is acknowledged and credited. The copyright remains the property of the author

It had turned out to be as good a morning as the weather forecast had promised. Olaf's first glance through the porthole on wakening revealed a clear blue sky with barely a wisp of cloud, a sultry heat-mist already forming that made the distant shore ripple while the sea itself remained majestically still, with only the barely perceptible rough-patch marking the reef's closest approach to the surface. They had anchored not long after sunrise, and while Olaf and Henrietta had slept, the Spanish-speaking Captain and Olaf's young safety diver Morris had studied the echo-sonde traces, eaten a light breakfast, and assembled all the equipment neatly on the rear deck ready for the dive. Olaf's camera gear and lights were neatly laid out behind his BCD and wet-suit. By the time he appeared from his cabin, having kissed Henrietta good morning (but, with an effort of will, left it at that) there was nothing more to do but suit-up and explain to Morris exactly what he had in mind.

"A beautiful morning, Morris, don't you think?" he began pleasantly.

"Perfect, I would say. Can I carry anything for you?" he nodded towards Olaf's special gear.

"In a minute, Morris. First, I want to explain what we'll be doing today. The main thing I'm after is shallow-water stuff. General coral landscape, with plenty of assorted fish in the foreground, and maybe you in the background, if that's okay."

"Maybe I should have shaved this morning," Morris smiled, running his hand over his rough chin.

"Don't worry about it," Olaf returned cheerfully, "just make sure you wear a nice colourful wet suit, and your bright yellow fins."

"Do you think we need wet-suits in this water?" Morris inquired doubtfully.

"This is show-business, Morris. Divers are supposed to wear fancy clothes. It's what people expect."

Morris nodded and grinnned.

"Now we're on nitrox, so we're going to have a massive bottom-time if we want to use it. I'm not planning to go below twenty meters, unless I see something interesting. But after I've got the shots I want, I'll be going for a little swim off the reef, west, where it's sandy. I saw a few rays there last week, and a jewfish bigger than you, Morris, so I'd like to have a look around and see if anything interesting shows up. I'd like you to come with me and carry the lights. Is that all right with you?"

"That's what I'm here for."

"I hope you don't get bored."

"I get bored above the water. Under the water, it's never boring!"

"Good." He slipped into his BCD and did-up the straps. "Check the valves and releases for me, will you Morris?"

- 0 -

Professor Malcolm Spiers pressed the remote control to activate the big up-and-over garage door and eased the car in as quietly as he could so as not to waken anybody in the house. As he did this he checked his wristwatch. 2.30 AM! Already!? It was so easy to get carried away when you were setting-up a new observational program, and the seeing had been so good tonight: he had actually removed the photomultiplier array for a while and simply looked through the eyepiece at the planet Jupiter. The colours had been breathtaking. He had been a professional astronomer for more than twenty years now, but it had been so long since he had actually looked through a large telescope with his own eyes that he just couldn't resist the opportunity while they were setting-up the new series on the two computers. Naturally there had been snags and problems and his few moments of self-indulgence had expanded finally into almost an hour. It had given him a chance to look at all of the gas giants that were above his local horizon, and a couple of delicately beautiful galaxies and gaseous nebulae, seeing them by means of light that had started its journey before Christopher Columbus had started his. It had made him feel like a boy again, back in his garden shed in Connecticut, gazing out alone into the majesty of Creation.

As he crept around upstairs, washing and getting ready for bed as quietly as he could, he was still on something of a high. Silently and stealthily, he entered the bedroom without switching on the light and slipped beneath the duvet next to Clara, who was motionless and breathing deeply and regularly.

He lay still for a moment, star-fields floating in front of his closed eyes, then suddenly he became certain that although Clara was to all outward appearances deeply asleep she was in fact wide awake, fully aware of his presence and his slightest movement.

"Why aren't you asleep, Clara?" he asked very gently.

"I… I was waiting for you to get in. And I was thinking about Louise." She replied, equally quietly.

Louise was their nineteen-year-old daughter. She had finished High School and now she wanted to go to Europe before she took up her place at Malcolm's old Yale college. Malcolm thought about her, lying in the bedroom beside them, and suddenly he became convinced that she was awake also, and that there was something on her mind. Something that she had spoken about with her mother, but not with him. He fancied that he even knew what it was.

"She doesn't want to go to Yale, does she?" he ventured.

"How did you know?" Clara probed, in a slightly louder whisper.

"Oh, I suppose it was something I just… picked-up, somehow. She wants to take up the offer from that theatre school, doesn't she?"

"Well… yes! How did you know? She said she hadn't spoken to you about it."

Malcolm shrugged. "Oh, it was just a guess. You think she should go there, don't you? You think it's something she's set her heart on?" Clara didn't answer. There didn't seem to be any need. "Well," Malcolm continued, almost to himself, "If that's what she wants to do, and what you want her to do, I'm not going to stand in her way."

Clara suddenly turned around and hugged him. "I knew you were going to say that… somehow. It's almost as if we were reading each other's minds, isn't it?"

Clara kissed him softly on the lips, and immediately the bedside phone rang.

"Damn!" He gently released himself from Clara's arms, "I bet it's some problem at the observatory." He lifted the receiver. "Spiers?" He listened for a few moments. "Could you run that past me again?" There was another pause while he listened to the same explanation a second time. "I'm sorry, Carter, I don't think that's possible. It'll be a fault in the multiplier array…. You've had who on the phone… ? You're kidding me now, aren't you?"

"What is it, Malcolm," Clara asked, now beginning to sound a bit sleepy. He covered the mouthpiece with his hand to reply.

"Some kind of optical illusion," he said with an odd expression on his face, "a bit of the sky just disappeared!"

- 0 -

Salvadore Mendez lifted his foot off the gas pedal and allowed the car to glide to a silent halt outside the Pandos Bay all-night drugstore. He had already killed the lights and even from this distance he could tell that the young black man in charge of the check-out had not raised his head from the book that he was reading. There was a good chance that his arrival had not been noticed - by anyone.

For a moment he sat motionless in the silent vehicle, a shaft of light from the glass front of the drugstore falling cleanly across the upper part of his chest, picking out the bulge in the vest pocket of his frayed denim jacket, spotlighting the dull metallic grey of the projecting handle. Highlighted in this way it looked almost obscene: he raised his left hand nervously to hide it from his own view.

There was a second in which he felt his courage waver, then the dull ache at the back of his head reminded him that his need was urgent, his options few. In a few minutes - perhaps an hour at the most - the shaking would start, then the nausea, the vomiting, the indescribable agony of that burning need in his guts, the sweating, the inconsolable depression, the longing for any release, even death if it could be swift…. He found his resolve and opened the car door very gently, being careful not to move too quickly as he stepped out on to the concrete parking-lot. He pushed the door back into position until the latch just rested against its striker-plate but did not engage, so that the door might appear closed to a casual observer. The key he was careful to leave in the ignition where he would not have to fumble for it when he was making his getaway. Salvadore had gone through all these actions many times before, but still his heart pounded and his mouth felt dry and tight.

He walked towards the store entrance, his left hand still covering the bulge in his vest pocket. Mentally he rehearsed the foulest abuse he could think of, the ugliest threats his imagination could muster, to convince the check-out clerk that he was a crazy and dangerous bastard who would blow somebody's brains out without a thought. He had pushed open the door and was inside the building before the clerk looked up.

- 0 -

Olaf had greatly enjoyed his photography session. Morris had been skilled in holding the light just where Olaf wanted it, and they had digitally captured several first-class moving sequences of the reef's teeming, dazzling population of underwater creatures. Luck had smiled upon them. They had seen a young turtle; a massive shoal of great barracuda swimming silently and elegantly overhead, each individual longer than Olaf's own body; a bulky and menacing spotted moray eel darting out from its rocky crevice to investigate their presence; a shoal of magnificent multi-coloured French angelfish the size of bicycle-wheels sailing peacefully by; a curious midnight parrot-fish, deep purple and encrusted with little shimmering green jewel-scales, that had swum right up to Morris' face-mask: all this in addition to the huge shoals of yellow sunshine-fish, moving in unison as though animated by a single soul, and the countless species of wrasse and trigger-fish whose weird shapes and almost indescribable colours and markings never failed to make the hairs on the back of Olaf's neck stand on end. Even now, after all the years he had been diving, it still felt like a visit to an alien planet, one on which there had been no Fall and the local equivalent of the Garden of Eden was still fully operational.

Olaf had more than enough material for his present assignment, and there was no real reason to stay down, but he noticed that he still had a great deal of nitrox in his tank and his wrist computer was reporting that his blood's absorption of nitrogen was as yet completely insignificant, so he decided that he might as well pass a bit of time and enjoy himself before returning to the boat for lunch. He had mentioned to Morris before going down about the rays he had seen in the sand, so his companion understood what he meant when he signalled that he wanted to swim west, off the reef, and see what he could find in the slightly deeper sandy sections between the elongated raised mounds of coral. The sandy regions were less visited than the coral, and for good reason, being almost lifeless by comparison, but as well as the sting-rays you might find a stone-fish, or a flat-fish of one species or another hiding just below the top layer of the fine white silicate.

He signalled to Morris to shine the light down on to the sand as they finned gently along, a few feet off the bottom. They were deeper now, and the natural light was quite weak. Olaf reflected that it wasn't very good practice to increase your depth at the end of a dive, but he knew that the accumulated experience of himself and Morris and the reassuring accuracy of the latest generation of dive-computers would make sure that no safety margins would be exceeded.

The water was noticeably cooler here, and as the minutes ticked by Olaf could see that they were encountering no creatures of visual interest, just a few small crabs, one or two dull-coloured bristle-worms, and a colony of small bottom-feeding cat-fish similar in colour to the sand itself.

On sighting the cat-fish Olaf paused momentarily and had to beckon Morris to stop. Morris waved the light around, exploring different areas of the sand below them, unsure of what it was that had attracted Olaf's attention. Olaf took hold of the metal bracket and gently directed the beam down on to the colony of bottom-feeders, signalling for Morris to hold it still. Slightly amused that anyone should want to look at such dull and commonplace little fish, Morris held the beam rock-steady. To his further surprise, Olaf started filming once again.

- 0 -

The control-room lights dimmed and the carefully positioned studio lighting picked-out the two soberly-suited men in easy-chairs behind a large circular coffee-table, facing forward to camera. They watched the hidden monitor screen, listening to the voice in their earphones, waiting for their cue to begin the interview. On the screen, a serious young female announcer introduced them in a tone of conspiratorial intimacy. "This is BBC 1. The programme that follows takes the place of tonight's scheduled edition of "What the Papers Say". To discuss the continuing freak astronomical phenomenon we have in our London studio Dr. Peter Travis of the observatory at Los Palmas in the Canary Islands, and on a live satellite link from Austin, Texas we have the man whose astronomical team first reported the phenomenon, Professor Malcolm Spiers of the University of Texas Observatory at Caliston Sands. The discussion is chaired by Robin Stuart."

As the chairman's face took the place of the girl's on the monitor screen he smiled broadly and made his introduction straight to camera. "Now I don't suppose there can be many people in Britain, or world-wide, who haven't heard about the mysterious hole in the sky that was first reported two days ago by Professor Spier's team in Texas, but whose existence has now been acknowledged by all astronomers everywhere, and indeed by anybody who wants to look up into the night sky in the general direction of the stars Pollox and Procyon. Is that right, Professor Spiers?"

Malcolm's face flashed onto the screen. He looked weary from lack of sleep but a glow of rapt enthusiasm lit up his eyes. "Yes. The phenomenon occupies that part of the sky between those two stars in the northern hemisphere. As seen from the southern United States at the moment, it's close to the horizon in the western sky."

"And can you tell us any more about what it is? I presume the term 'hole in the sky' is just a journalistic description."

Malcolm blushed imperceptibly. "Well, in a lot of ways it isn't a bad description. What we have is a dark spherical object which is blocking out the light from the stars in that region of the sky, giving the impression of a missing section of sky. The occluded section is similar in size to the disc of the full moon."

"And what exactly is this object, in your opinion, Professor Spiers?"

"I have absolutely no idea, Mr. Stuart. And as far as I know, neither has anybody else."

"That surely isn't a very comfortable position for the world scientific community," the Chairman smiled. "Do you favour some kind of intelligent alien explanation? Do you think there is any danger from this invisible object?"

Malcolm paused. "I think that, in a manner of speaking, the greatest danger is to our intellectual self-confidence. This is an object which fits in to no presently held theory of astronomy, or of matter itself, come to that. It is an object without discernible mass, whose surface is totally unreflective, and which is maintaining a constant distance and position relative to the earth even though it is not in orbit."

"How can you say with certainty that it is not in orbit?"

"Because orbits are subject to laws, laws we've known about since medieval times, mostly discovered by Johannes Kepler in the Seventeenth Century. An orbiting body behaves in certain clearly defined ways. This is something completely different. This is behaving as though it was connected to the earth's surface by a rigid pole. A pole about three hundred thousand miles in length."

"We've had suggestions in the newspapers that this object could be a black hole, or something called a 'naked singularity'. Would you like to comment on that?"

"I'm afraid those are just terms that have entered the public vocabulary. This object is nothing like either of them. Black holes are very massive. This seems to have no mass. Also a black hole wouldn't show up as black, despite its name: there would be intense radiation from close to the event horizon where material was being sucked in from its surroundings. Neither would a naked singularity. It would bend light-rays in totally different ways. This is something else. Something that no theory has ever postulated."

"So, is there anything you can say about the object, based on the evidence you've collected?"

Malcolm paused. "Only that it breaks all the rules. That it's an impossibility, and yet it exists. It may not even be an object, it could be some kind of freak optical effect, or some kind of bubble… irregularity… in space itself. We really don't have very much idea about it at all. I think perhaps we should look upon it as a reminder that… well, that we don't know all the answers. Or even all the questions. Maybe that's why it's here… to tell us something about ourselves. Sorry, that's very unscientific. I don't know what made me say that."

- 0 -

Ephriam Volan, Prime Minister of the State of Israel, signalled across the vast oval table of the murmuring conference chamber to Ahmad al Sheikh, the Palestinian leader, to meet him on the roof during the recess. He did this by flicking his right index finger momentarily towards the ceiling, a gesture that Ahmad had come to understand perfectly during the course of these interminable peace talks. The two men made their separate ways up the twin curved flights of stone steps, their respective armed minders a discreet few paces behind, and pushed open the two orate wooden doors that opened out on to the flat, railed perimeter of the central stone dome. A welcome coolness greeted them as they stepped out into the fairytale, starlit domain of higgledy-piggledy stone domes linked by a seemingly continuous plane of concrete slabs on which perched water-tanks, incongruous satellite dishes on steel tripods and all manner of improvised clothes-lines and roof-gardens that cluttered the patchwork of interlinked flat roofs in this part of the ancient walled city of Jerusalem. Above the flat sections the centuries-old stone-built domes stood high and proud like the tops of gigantic eggs half buried in the masonry. In one direction the high sheer wall of the Temple Mount was visible beyond the houses, capped by the magnificent gold Dome of the Rock that now occupied the site of the first and second Temples. In the opposite direction the fairytale towers and castellated walls of King David's Fort stood out black against the dazzling glare of yellow street-lights and flickering neon signs from the formless high-rise sprawl of the new city beyond the ancient walls. And crowning it all was the great vault of heaven itself, brimming over with the multi-coloured stars that flickered and danced from one horizon to the other, except where they were drowned in the glare of the still wakeful city. A very astute observer might have spotted another break in this magnificent canopy: a perfectly circular cut-out of blackness about the size of a full moon, seeming to hover motionless above the Mount of Olives, like a single dense cloud, obscuring the view of the stars behind.

The two men abandoned their protectors and strolled around to the darker east-facing section of the roof, to two padded wooden armchairs which they angled out towards the skyline of the old city before sitting down.

For a few moments they were silent. Volan was the first to speak. "A beautiful night, Ahmad," he said at last, "and a beautiful city below us."

"The most beautiful city of all," the other agreed, "I pray it could become as happy as it is beautiful."

"Amen to that, my friend." He paused for a few moments. "I wonder why we talk in English," he quietly mused, "when I know that your Hebrew is as good as mine and my Arabic is as good as yours?"

"I think we speak English when we speak not as Arab or as Jew, but as men who must share the same city and the same world."

"Well said, my friend! It's strange, but tonight I feel that we know each other very well. And… despite the history of our two peoples… I find that I can not hate you tonight. That I can not think of you… as my enemy. As some kind of demon! Strange, isn't it?"

"Perhaps Allah has chosen this moment to create some wonderful change in the hearts of men."

"Who knows?" Volan looked out across the ragged plane broken by the myriad protruding stone domes. "Do you know why our ancestors started making those domed stone roofs?" he asked casually.

Ahmad shrugged. "Just an architectural style, I suppose."

"No - more than that. The stone dome was an answer to a very great problem. The scarcity of wood for making roof-beams. All that our forefathers possessed in abundance was stone, and so they invented the stone domed roof, and those stone roofs have lasted more than a thousand years. In some cases more than two thousand. They didn't expect them to last that long. It was an unintentional outcome of the lack of proper building materials, as they would have seen it"

"Really. I didn't know that before."

"Our problem is to build a new society. A new Israel and a new Palestine. I wonder if our building materials are any better."

"I don't think I understand."

Volan put his hand on Ahmad's shoulder. "Perhaps, my friend, our building materials are so poor that we have no alternative but to build something that will last a thousand years!"

- 0 -

Salvadore Mendez stood in front of the young black counter-clerk and allowed his right hand to tighten around the handle of the gun in his vest pocket. The clerk looked up. "Can I help you, Sir?" he asked in a tone that conveyed no emotion.

Salvadore hesitated. He seemed to be having trouble mustering the venom that he needed to go through with the hold-up. It wasn't fear that was stopping him, it was more that he understood what the clerk was feeling at this moment, the apprehension, the dread, the fear for his own safety… even something of the tenderness the other man felt for his girlfriend, whom Salvadore somehow knew was pregnant with the clerk's child. And by the same impenetrable mechanism he was certain that the clerk understood something of what he was feeling himself. It was as if the fierce individualism that had been the powerhouse of Salvadore's life for so long had suddenly begun to dissolve. More than that, the very separateness of his psyche seemed to be melting away. He didn't know how to cope with the unfamiliar feeling. He hesitated so long that the other spoke again.

"You're feeling pretty bad, Sir, aren't you?"

Salvadore nodded. "Pretty bad," he repeated, hardly able to believe that it was himself saying the words.

"Look, Mister," the young black man's voice and whole delivery had suddenly changed, "I know where you're at. I've been there myself. Cold turkey ain't nice. But I know somewhere you can go. They're open all night. I can take you there right now. They're good. They'll help. They'll see you through. I promise. Okay?"

Salvadore nodded, but his mind was somewhere else. What's going on, his inner voice demanded, who is this guy? What am I saying to him? It was like observing the actions of somebody else.

"I think you'd better leave the gun here," the clerk added, "I'll put it down under the cash-register beside mine and keep it safe for you. You can pick it up any time you like."

Like a man in a trance, Salvadore handed the clerk the loaded automatic.

- 0 -

Olaf waited in the water for Morris to climb the ladder into the boat, then, handing the heavy strobe light and the rest of the equipment up to him first, he made his own way up on to the deck where Henrietta was sunbathing in her blue bikini, lying flat along the bench seat.

"A good dive?" she asked brightly as he kissed her hand in playful imitation of an eighteenth century court dandy.

"Very good. But what would you know? You must learn to dive and come with me!"

"I've learned enough for one day. Captain Cortez has taught me to speak Spanish this morning."

"So long as that's all he taught you!" Olaf carefully undid the releases on his tank and started to slip out of his elaborate diving-jacket. Morris, who had already removed his, sat down beside him.

"Why did you film those ugly little bottom-feeders?" he asked with a smile.

Olaf carefully stashed his equipment away as he answered. "I noticed something about them when you shined the light on them. Something odd. Did you see how active they became?"

"Yes. But that's normal. They're cat-fish. Bottom-feeders. They don't get much light down there, they use their whiskers to find food. Sense of touch, or taste or something."

"Exactly. You could tell that their eyes were very rudimentary. But that was the whole point. When they suddenly had good light, it changed their behaviour. They discovered something."

"Discovered what?"

"One another. That's what they were so excited about. They suddenly discovered that they had neighbours! They had never been able to see each other clearly before! I'm sure of it."

Morris turned to Henrietta and tapped his forehead with his index finger. "I think your boyfriend is a little bit crazy," he warned her solemnly.

"That's what I like about him," she confided with a smile.

"Don't be such a stick-in-the-mud, Morris. You're thinking like a bottom-feeder yourself. Open up your mind! We may have changed the whole course of cat-fish society today."

Morris laughed. "I don't think cat-fish have very long memories."

"Then they are even smarter than I thought!" Olaf returned jovially.

- 0 -

The studio lights around him dimmed slightly and the camera drew in to give a head-and-shoulders view of Robin Stuart with a blue-screen mask behind him to permit news-clips and background images. He waited for the end of the zoom and smiled broadly direct to camera. "Thank you to Professor Spiers in Texas and to Dr. Travis here in the studio. Needless to say we'll keep you informed of any further developments on this very strange hole-in-the-sky phenomenon and you can hear more discussion about it in tonight's main news at 10.30. Now before returning you to your scheduled programmes, a brief round-up of other breaking news from around the world. First, Israel." A library-shot of pious Jews at the West Wall appeared behind him.

"In a surprise communiqué from the renewed peace-talks in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Volan and PLO leader Ahmad al Sheikh announced that they have jointly agreed to renounce all territorial claims on the ancient city of Jerusalem, and that the Israeli seat of government will be moved to Tel Aviv with the earliest possible effect. Jerusalem will become, in Mr. Al Sheikh's words, a de-militarized holy city under the protection of Almighty God, and will be administered internationally in a manner yet to be agreed. It is believed that if this settlement of the Jerusalem question holds it will represent the removal of the last and most intractable barrier to the long awaited Arab/Israeli peace settlement. The American President has already issued an invitation to both leaders to the White House to finalise the details of the new agreement.

"China." Behind him appeared a picture of Tiananmen Square at sunrise. "The Government of China has just announced a desire to resume the nuclear disarmament talks suspended last October after the withdrawal of the Chinese delegation. The Chinese military authorities say that they have a number of new initiatives to put on the table which they believe will lay the foundations for a new era of peaceful co-operation between the East and the West. United Nations secretary Kamal Rafdi said that this represented the most encouraging sign from the Chinese leadership that he could recall in recent years.

"New York." The Manhattan skyline appeared behind him. "The Mayor of New York announced tonight that the last two days had seen the lowest reported instances of violent crime in the city since records have been kept in their present form. He attributed the dramatic improvement to a number of recent community initiatives on the part of the city's police force, and said that he was confident the massive improvement was going to be maintained…"

He turned and took a sheet of paper from the hand of someone off-camera to his right. "And finally, I've just been handed a breaking news story from Reuters. The mysterious black hole in the sky with which we began this special bulletin disappeared completely about ten minutes ago at 17.03 Greenwich Mean Time. Scientists say the phenomenon vanished in an instant, like turning off a light…. "