by R.W Van Sant
Once in bed, sleep and dreams quickly followed—mostly dreams of nightmare landscapes and a dead world. The sun was a small blur of light in the dense canopy that covered the whole ecosphere and had for some time. With insufficient light and heat, the plants wilted and died. Grazing animals fought over what little scrub had managed to fight its way to the frozen surface. He floated above what once had been a lush jungle; now barren, filled with the rotting carcasses of creatures unable to adapt to the radical change in their world.
A terrible hunger permeated all thoughts, but the smell of rotting carrion brought with it a terrible revulsion. Hunger eventually forced him to wander the fields of the dead feeding on death and decay. The world would never be the same again. He and the others had become the masters of a dying world. It could no longer sustain them. To survive, he knew they must sleep; an eons-long hibernation until the world itself had healed.
Before drifting beyond the veil, however, they needed to guarantee their survival. Each went their own way, searching until they found creatures with the proper potential, creatures worthy of dominating the world until they returned. They found animals, eating the carrion and thriving. They were tiny, furry, burrowing animals much too small to eat. That would change. Jerry felt the combined will of the others as he joined them. Together they forced the little creatures to evolve. The strain of the effort made him drowsy, and thus with their future secure, they faded from the world into the hazy realm beyond the veil. They left behind a seed of hope. With the change they had started in the little furry creatures, they bestowed great potential, and destiny, to become the dominant form of life on the planet.
Jerry awoke, his stomach growling. His last meal was like a distant memory, and he felt hungrier than he had in a very long time. He sat up, forcing his sore muscles to move his stiff body out of bed. The smell of food wafting in from the hallway compelled him to the motion.
Ted had already risen early and fixed breakfast. He was apparently in better shape than Jerry. Whatever the source of his energy, he had once again made breakfast. Eggs, hamburger patties, fresh fruit, and toast waited on the kitchen table. There was even some pizza left. Jerry ignored the coffee, choosing to dig into the food. Ted ate just as ravenously and breakfast quickly degenerated into an eating contest. It was close, but Ted did a little better.
Ted, however, did not have to look good for their diving instructor.
Ellie was waiting on the beach, sitting on the sand watching the morning tide. Ted pulled up along the beach, and they both jumped out and ran awkwardly across the uneven sand. She motioned them to sit next to her and a pile of scuba gear in the cold morning sand.
“Are we awake yet?” She said.
“Yeah,” Jerry replied.
“A bit,” Ted added.
“Good we’ll start with a review, just to make sure Paul didn’t miss anything.” Her smile curled in the corner, promising an exciting day. One by one, she went over every single point on the diving exam. It was easier for Jerry to concentrate when Paul gave the test; he did not wear a swimsuit that showed off his assets as well.
The first subject she grilled them over was equipment. She brought a complete set with some accessories and interrogated them about their name, purpose, how much they weighed, even how they restricted certain motions underwater. Afterward, she told them anecdotes from her personal experience and those she had heard of how they could snag on rocks and other underwater hazards. She wanted to make sure that he and Ted knew what to do if any piece of the apparatus failed to operate, or became damaged. The sun had risen quite a bit before she was satisfied.
Next came intensive training in “buddy breathing.” From her pile, Ellie pulled out an unattached ‘octopus’ hose setup. First, she made them identify the primary and secondary respirator units. Jerry felt that he had caught on rather quickly, feeling cocky and self-assured until she pulled out the blindfolds. She tied them around Jerry’s head so completely that he could barely see the tiny pinpricks of light from the sun.
“You now each have a hose set up.” Her voice broke the darkness as he felt the rubber hoses put into his hand. “Find your respirators and put them in your mouths, without breathing. Hold your breath.” Jerry fumbled around with the hoses running each along his fingers until he reached the end. Each time he found the wrong one. Burning lungs eventually compelled him to take a breath.
“You’re dead.” Ellie’s voice accompanies a sharp jab to his stomach. “Both of you. You drowned.”
“Damn it,” Ted exclaimed.
“We’ll get it,” Jerry said.
“You’d better get it. Where you are diving, the water has low visibility, maybe a few yards at best. If you go into rocks or a hull, it will be very dark down there.”
“We’ll have flashlights. Hey!” Ted yelped with surprise.
“Find your hoses, Ted.” Ellie’s voice was hard. “Lights get dropped or broken. If you two don’t get this right, the lessons end here. I won’t help you kill each other.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Jerry was still feeling his harness until he found his backup regulator.
“No cheating.” Jerry felt Ellie take the apparatus from his hands, a moment later it was returned, and he could no longer tell where it was positioned. “Let’s do it again.”
Jerry felt that he had done better with his second try, but his lungs burned as he tried to hold his breath until he could hold it no longer. The stale air burst from his lungs as his hands touched the regulator.
“Almost made it, but still dead.” He felt the pain of her poke in his unprepared belly. “Almost is not sufficient.” He could hear Ted’s muffled snort. Ted found his regulator. “And you, you just lost your brother because you didn’t get to your back up in time to save him. Hold your breath and do it again.”
They kept it up until Jerry and Ted could find their regulators and their backups in the span of one breath. Jerry was elated; he knew the entire apparatus by feel. Once they completed the procedure three times in succession, she made it more difficult. Sitting across from each other, he and Ted repeated the process. Ellie, however, was making them put the regulators into each other’s mouth before she let either take a breath. Still blindfolded, they located their regulators and tried to pass a mouthpiece between them, more often than not hitting each other in the face. Every time one of them took a breath without the mouthpiece, or tried to give the other a hint Ellie administered a painful jab to the stomach accentuated by a verbal thrashing; “you’re drowning.” Not only did Jerry kill himself repeatedly, but most likely murdered killed Ted as well.
She kept drilling them all day, only stopping for brief breaks. Jerry was tired, grumpy and his stomach was red and sore from the abuse. To top it off, Ellie had yelled at him so much that he was convinced she now hated him or thought him an inept dweeb. He had sacrificed what might have been a potential romantic relationship for a business one. It was a choice he was regretting, but he could not have it both ways. It was now all business with her, and she did not pull her punches.
“You up for another run tomorrow?” Ellie asked.
“Yeah,” Jerry felt significantly less enthusiastic than he had that morning. Ted looked none too happy either.
“Don’t worry. You did well, considering,” Ellie said.
“Considering what?” Jerry put a protective hand on his bruised stomach.
“Don’t whine,” she scolded. “You asked for my help, remember.”
“I told you you’d regret that,” Ted said.
“I didn’t expect it to be this painful.” Jerry’s admission made her laugh.
“In a couple of days, you and your brother are going to do a very stupid thing. To your credit, at least you know you’re stupid, and you asked for help. I know that I can’t talk you out of it. I will tell you that many people, with a lot more experience than you, have dived in the cove. No one has ever found anything. The bad currents and sharks scare off most people. Whatever the case, it’s a scary dive, even for experts, and there have been shark attacks along that part of the coast since the founding of the port. The PODs are not one hundred percent effective. So what can I do?” She sat on the sand between them. “As I see it, I have three choices. One, let you go and get yourselves killed. Two, shove years of training down your throat in a few days. Three, hurt you so bad that you’ll be unable to dive.”
“I see that you’ve decided to combine the last two.” Jerry smiled weakly.
“See, you’re not entirely stupid.” She said. “I’ve got some books for you in my car. I want you to cram tonight. There will be a quiz in the morning. These are firsthand accounts of shipwreck divers. You have no experience. Maybe you can learn from theirs.”
They walked to her car in the parking lot. Ellie opened the car and piled books into Jerry’s arms. Then she surprised him with a kiss, planted firmly and passionately on his lips. Stunned, he kissed back.
“Good,” She backed away and got into her car. “I was beginning to think that I might have scared you off.”
Jerry stared as Ellie drove away. “Never.”
“You dog,” Ted said. “She must go for idiots.”
“Must.” Jerry headed to the truck.
“Just remember what happened last night. Be careful what you say around her.”
“Okay, I remember.”