Chapter 24

Jake hit the sea with a start. Clenching for impact, body punching through the surface like the slap-fall of a gallows trapdoor. The sea engulfed him as he sank, torso rushing through the cold ocean as he descended. Sinking deeper he snapped from trance and panicked. He kicked and clawed and thrashed as he fell through a squeezing corset of gloom, limbs flailing like a beetle trapped in a pitcher plant.

     A meter and a half down he opened his eyes and looked around. Was greeted by a chainmail of bubbles rising through deep blue-blackness, his brain caught in a loop of confusion. What the hell am I doing? The question blinking again in his psyche as he continued to sink, this time spawning a whole new level of terror. Exhausted and on the verge of mental collapse, buoyancy finally rivaled gravity and his momentum ebbed. For an instant the forces fought to a draw, and Jake floated like a fetus in utero, twitching weightless in the inner space of creation. 

     A fathom plus below the surface, light from the Phantom glowing thinly above, Jake waited for the burn of anoxic napalm. But it never came. And instead an unusual moment ensued where Jake hovered in stasis—limbs dangling slack, mind going numb—still disoriented but no longer distraught. He heard a hum in the water, it was pleasing. Was it the ship’s engines or something else? The hum seemed to penetrate his mind and sing in his midbrain, emitting a soothing vibration that diffused through muscle and mind, spreading calm to body parts where, only an instant prior, fear and pain reigned.  

     Well, this is unexpected, his brain submitted in whatta-ya-know amazement as he hung in the water column, yet to make any attempt to swim back to the surface, the cellular harmonics continuing to flow through him. Filling him with warmth where there should’ve been chill, inspiring hope where there should’ve been doom. Ordinarily, in a fix such as this, he’d have to know what was going on, analyze the equation to death till he figured it out.

     But he shut down his OCD and let it go, surrendering to the moment, an action less of choice than reflex. Because impossible as it all was, as contradictory to logic as it spoke, there was one simple truth, a fact as unmistakable as it was impossible to comprehend. And even in the face of death that simple truth rang clear…

     …he felt good.

     Cognition flickering back, he broke the spell and looked up, his focus shifting to survival. Above and to the left, the Phantom’s running lights hued the sea in a glowing-green oval, big as an oil spill. To his right, and in every other direction, blackness. Jake centered himself and merged with the new moment; it was time to rise. Adjusting his torso to plumb, he flexed his limbs and surged upward in one powerful stroke.  

     Breaking the surface, he drew air and looked around. He had drifted a good distance from the ship in his little impromptu underwater interlude, the Phantom almost a hundred meters off. The ship still loomed huge but set against the yawning sapphire tableau, it had lost much of its threat. Treading water, he realized the current was strong. He couldn’t actually feel it as perceive it, the distance between him and the ship growing wider with each swell and gentle lap of the sea.

     Breathing comfortably, still treading in place, he realized he was not winded. More than that, he felt revitalized, stronger than he had in some time, his litany of symptoms continuing to pull back the longer he was in the water. The ultimate salt bath, the oceanic alternative to forest bathing. Something bumped his shoulder and he whirled, eyes bugging. It was a small raft of trash. A plastic bottle and a few cans twisted in seaweed and nylon twine. Whew, he breathed, panic receding. It wasn’t something dangerous. A potential deathtrap for some poor fish but not to him…at least not in the moment.

     Watching the small raft drift off he decided it was time to get moving. He glanced at the Phantom, the ship principal in his field of view, the tube dark and soaring, a gigantic syringe needle tapering into the heavens. The image served to top-post the enormity of this crisis, and reminded him that he still had no idea how to bring it down before the planet was sucked dry. He sighed and tried to let it go. He still had time. Leaning back, he raised his legs and kicked, moving away from the ship. After several meters of backstroke, moving smoothly through the mild surf, he rotated and switched to freestyle…and continued to swim off, travelling away from the Phantom.

      He knew how to swim but it was never a strength. His mother had been on the swim team in high school, and was fairly athletic. She had taught him how to swim when he was young, the skill imparted as much to buoy neuroplasticity as teaching him a valuable skill. Though he had picked it up, he was never all that comfortable in the water. But now…now all of the sudden it felt like second nature and he was swimming like Michael Phelps. And as he flew through the water, his speed increasing with each stroke, he felt perfectly at home. Super strange.

     But he did his best to stay in the moment, censor any alarm bells. Slicing through the surf, he fell into a rhythm, limbs sweeping in sync with a heart thudding with conviction. Though rapt in the task, he could feel his inner worrywart trying to horn in and spoil the fun, begging questions, tendering objections: What are you doing? This is stupid! You must be going crazy! This is dangerous!

     There were hazards in the wilds of the southwest, things that bit and pricked and wanted to sting you. There were even a few things out there that wanted to eat you. Not so much anymore though, most everything with means, motive and chompportunity had been effectively purged or pushed to remoteness. In his many treks, Jake had seen bears and coyotes, and even a mountain lion once. But in each encounter, there was never any real danger. He had seen it coming, his awareness and savvy in the environment giving him the tools to avoid harm. They were all just beautiful beats in his journey, sacred moments to be scrapbooked in memory.

     Though he felt a sudden sense of belonging out here in the ocean, swimming freely as he was, a kinship similar to how he felt when roaming the desert biome, enough prudence shined through the euphoria to warn him of the differences. Out here, the danger went way beyond concerns of anaphylaxis from a sting. There were much greater threats. Lurking things. Things with jaws and swords and flukes as big as pickup trucks. Threats that were not only more possible but almost impossible to see coming…and thus avoid. Aside from the encroachment of trash, out here most of the creatures rising to the rank of maneater were still in fair abundance. The fish and lesser food-chain denizens were greatly reduced, of course, fished by man at an unsustainable rate. But most of the larger predators held little commercial interest, and as such, were largely still around.

     Chewing on the equation as he continued his swim, he was rammed by a surge of water. A pulse wave, strong enough to shove his torso in the surf. Not breaking stride, he raised his head to scan the area…and immediately panicked.

     A fin. Huge. Dark. Off to the side, pacing him. Uh oh. And the Phantom was a million miles away.

    Oh great…

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