Where man has been, man has left his mark. From the irrevocable alteration of ecosystems to the mass extinction of indigenous life, we have slashed and burned our way through every corner of this planet. Out of all the contamination I’ve come across in my twenty years as a marine biologist however, there’s nothing that has left so grievous an impact on my psyche as the footprints I discovered on the ocean floor.
My name is Kathleen Williams, and I’m currently employed by the global Geotraces Project. Our study of bioechochemical cycles has led Eric and I to Vik, an Icelandic fishing village with long black beaches of scattered ash and fragmented lava. Although the volcanoes lie dormant, local reports have indicated an uncharacteristicly vibrant level of marine life which is consistent with active hydrothermal vents which billow dissolved minerals into the water.
Eric and I spent about two weeks performing chemical tests along the shoreline before identifying the most likely locations for the vent. Each morning before sunrise, we’d pack our gear and walk across the serene black sand, leaving a lonely trail of tracks like astronauts on an alien world. Each new day gave us a brand new world as our previous set of footprints were devoured by the ocean tide which thunders relentless against cliffsides like the tolling laughter of an ancient God. Standing here so vulnerable to the forces of nature, it was clear that man has learned to treat the elements with the utmost reverence.
“Not today. No sailing today,” our guide Aaron translated for the wizened creature who was even more gnarled than the walking stick he leaned upon. His eyebrows huddled together like lost sheep in a storm and a thick rush of Iclandic prompted Aaron to add: “The spirits rest lightly in the waves.”
Eric and I exchanged a tight-lipped grin. My fellow researcher was even more dismissive of the supernatural than I was, but neither of us wanted to burn bridges with the locals who had volunteered to shelter and feed us for the duration of our expedition. The old man seemed like a force of nature unto himself, and offending him seemed like shouting obscenities at the ocean while clinging to a life-raft.
“How much longer will they be restless?” Eric asked. We waited for Aaron to twist the words into the musical score of babble, but we could both guess what the reply would be even before the translation returned. The old man shrugged, spreading his hands to the grandeur of a cloudless sky.
“It’s okay,” I told Eric as we walked along the beach that afternoon. “We can go back over the ridge we went yesterday and retest the samples to make sure we have the right spot.”
“It’s a waste of time. I think they’re just screwing us around,” Eric said.
“They know how important our work is. If they didn’t, they’d never be helping us so much -”
“Yeah? Then what’s he doing over there?” Eric asked.
Squinting against the sun’s glare on the sand, it took a moment for me to make out the old man untying his boat by the shore. Even the serenity of this incredible landscape couldn’t stop a bitter hot frustration rising in my chest.
“If he’s sailing, then there’s no reason for us not to set out too,” Eric said. “Where does he get off with that restless spirit crap? He probably just didn’t want us to use his boat.”
“Well we can’t ask to go with him now that he’s already said no,” I replied. “Let’s just try again tomorrow -”
“Hey! Aaron! Can you find us another boat for the afternoon?” Eric wasn’t listening. He never was any good at sitting still. He spent the whole flight from London pressing his face against the window, practically exploding out of the seat the second we landed. I guess I was eager too, because we both soon found ourselves on the next dinghy that was big enough to carry our TDC Sample kit and diving gear.
“It looks like he’s going the same way,” I pointed out. The old man was even staring in our direction for a long while, although he didn’t make the slightest wave or acknowledgement. “Should we hide or something?”
“He’s the one who should be embarrassed to be out here, not us,” Eric said. “Restless spirits my ass. Come on, just ignore him. We got a late start and a full dive schedule ahead of us.”
It was hard to concentrate on our test kits with him staring at us the whole time though. Each time we stopped to collect samples, the old man stopped too, just bobbing up and down on the waves about a hundred yards off. At my request, we started going deeper to avoid him, but as chance would have it the concentration of iron isotopes began to immediately diminish and we had to get back on trail.
“It’s like he knows exactly where the vent is,” Eric grumbled, straining on his oar to pull us back into line behind the old man. “Would it have been that hard for him to just tell us?”
“Maybe he IS the restless spirit he warned us about,” I joked, failing to wipe the scowl off Eric’s face. “Oh come on, it’s not like you would have listened even if he pointed to a map. You would have wanted to make your own measurements.”
“Now look what he’s doing – what in the world?”
I followed the line of Eric’s bewilderment just in time to see a gentle ripple vanish into the icy waters.
“Where did he go? Don’t tell me -”
“Yeah. Dove right in,” Eric confirmed. “No thermal gear or snorkel or anything. We better hurry.”
It took almost five minutes to pull our boat up alongside his. Nothing stirred, not even a splash. The scouring wind lanced off the freezing spray to pitch the dinghy treacherously to and fro. There was no sign that a living being had entered nature’s domain except –
“Bubbles! Over here!” I was already struggling into my thermal diving suit which clung to my body like a second skin.
“Not from him though,” Eric said. “Too consistent. This has to be gasses escaping from the vent.”
“Doesn’t matter, he has to be down there somewhere.” Mask, check. Tank, check. Regulator, check.
“He was,” Eric added darkly. “He isn’t still though. Not after this long in these waters.”
I tipped backward off the boat and submerged into the icy liquid. Another burst of bubbles – I swam through them, trying to find a clearer view. A few moments later I heard another splash as Eric made his plunge, but I didn’t spare him a glance. All I could focus on were the footprints on the ocean floor.
Not in the sand. Those would have been washed away the moment they were placed. A long trail of footprints were embedded directly into the black volcanic rock. No natural phenomenon could have produced such deep, even strides. A thousand questions flitted through my brain, but the inescapable conclusion was that someone – or something – must have walked through here before the molten lava had cooled.
The footprints headed in the opposite direction of the underwater vent. A hotbed of tube worms, shrimp, and crabs which fed on the microbes living there blanked the floor and swayed rhythmically with the tide like a sentient garden. At one point the footprints abruptly vanished as though whoever was walking had simply lifted off and swam away. I plunged deeper, fighting my way through the thickening cloud of bubbles for a clear view.
Following the footprints in the opposite direction led me closer to the base of the vent. I glanced back at Eric, but he was staying close to the surface, capturing a variety of water samples. Back to the vent, I began to truly appreciate the scale of the underwater complex. Hydrothermal vents are created and maintained by the heat of underlying volcanic activity, and even though it only looked like a barely elevated craggy slope, I knew we had to be on the tip of a massive underwater volcano. From the volcanic rock which stretched for miles in all directions to the wide expanses of black beaches, all that lava had to come from somewhere.
Once my feet touched the ocean floor – about 120 feet below the surface – I discovered a small archway carved into the rock. Carved – because the closely fitted stones and intricate engraven spiral patterns were unmistakably a human effort. The foot prints exited from this arch opened into the mound of rock dominated by a series of chimney vents. I pulled myself inside, feeling as though I had entered some manner of primordial temple hidden below the silent waters.
I had to use my flashlight to continue beyond this point. I was surrounded in a torrent of bubbling dissolved gasses now, and everywhere my beam of light touched was crowded with all manner of thriving crustaceans. The walls around me looked more natural here – a truly gargantuan underground cavern which yawned into the vacuous black water beneath me. I considered going back for Eric, but I still had more than half my air reserves and there was something about the raw power of the place that I was loathe to turn my back on. Never before had I encountered a hidden world which so readily lent itself to the darkest recesses of my imagination. My heart was electric with thrill as I propelled deeper into those black waters.
There were more carvings here. Covering the walls, nesting within alcoves, decorating this sanctuary of forgotten worship with layer upon layer of perfectly interlocking geometric designs. Even with modern equipment, there’s no way someone could have maintained this depth long enough to build this labyrinth. The sonorous moan of the water pulsing through the caverns gave credence to even more unlikely explanations however, and I resolved to keep an open mind as the limits of my scientific knowledge were strained.
Especially now that the watery pulse of the cavern began to alter with malicious intent. The water pulled and pushed me as though I was caught in the swell of a behemoths labored breathing. I had to start kicking to stay in place now, lest the current dragged me deeper into the vents and their bubbling clouds of noxious gases. I’d wear myself out if I stayed too long, but on the edge of turning back I lingered a moment more. A shimmer ran up the cavern walls like an animal frozen in terror, and then some faint flicker of red light caught my eye.
The rolling boil of the water intensified and pushed warm currents over my skin which tingled pleasantly after the icy water. An eruption? Right Now? Exactly when I happened to be here? But I knew in the pit of my stomach that it wasn’t blind chance that strained against the surrounding vents and evaporated the water into waves of boiling steam. Something knew I was here and wanted me gone.
I had to get out. I couldn’t have more than a minute before the molten rock began to overflow the cavern and reach me, and I would be enveloped by the boiling steam even before that. I couldn’t move though – not yet – not while the dull red light of the lava was giving me my one chance to see what lay at the heart of the pit.
This wasn’t an isolated temple or a shrine. It was an entry chamber. Beyond the meager extent of my portable light and into the unfathomable depths now illuminated by the volcanic discharge stretched a city of profound magnitude. Twisting spires like the teeth of Hell ruptured from the rock along the deplorable descent. Ordered rows of houses were carved into the cliff sides, expansive basins housed stark monoliths, and occult runes and symbols were blazoned across every surface for as far as I could see.
If only I could stay to explore – but no. The water was already reaching a boil around me and I could feel my hands and feet scalding where they weren’t covered with the thermal suit. I struck hard against the swirling water, fighting for every inch against the terrible breath the cave inhaled to summon me inward. The walls around me were oozing and running from the heat, dribbling like candle-wax beneath a flame. I surged outward, propelled by a mindless desperation that my fragile mortality spun. The groan of the cave had risen into primal bellow of hissing steam, until at last I was hurled from the rocky confines and spat into the open water off the Icelandic coast.
The archway – the cavern – the footprints – it was all being submerged in a fresh layer of volcanic rock. I rose slowly through the remaining water toward the surface. I should have been relieved at even being alive, but the helpless frustration of watching that splendorous secret buried beneath the waves made me feel as though part of me was dying with it.
Even this far up, the water was beginning to steam and boil. My air was running low, and I couldn’t waste anymore time getting back to the boat. Just before I surfaced though, I saw him emerge from the swiftly submerging archway before it collapsed in utter ruin.
The old man was walking through the molten rock, leaving a fresh trail of footprints to exit the hidden city. His cane tossed aside, his back straight and proud, he looked like a victorious hero returning from battle. Willing myself to flee but unable to turn away, I watched as he surveyed his transforming kingdom and then locked eyes with me. He was too far away to see clearly through the turbulent water, but it seemed to me as though he were beckoning me to return. An urge to descend overcame me, intruding into my mind and penetrating me down to the core of my nature. As surely as a clock must record the passing seconds, it was my purpose to be drawn back down.
Through boiling water and clouds of gas, straining against a diminishing air supply and into the very heart of lava I would have gone. If it wasn’t for Eric wrapping his arms around me then, I don’t think I would have had the power to resist the silent call. I struggled briefly before realizing what I was doing, but even then I could do little more than let my body go limp and allow Eric to drag me back up toward the surface.
I was silent on the trip back to the village Vik, and then I started packing the moment we landed. I didn’t want to wait for the old man to come back, or to look into his mask of humanity and wonder what unknown avatar lay dormant beneath. Eric didn’t understand and did his best to convince me to stay. He talked at length through the night about the wealth of data to be collected from the fresh eruption and in those vents. He talked about our duty to the organization, and even our responsibility to the health of the whole planet. I didn’t care about any of it though. All I wanted was to escape back to a world where sense and reason weren’t playthings for the unknowable horror that sunken world promised me.
It wasn’t him who convinced me to stay though. It was Aaron, who picked me up for the airport the next morning.
“Everyone will miss having you around,” he said.
“Somehow I doubt that,” I replied.
“It’s true. Just last night, that old man with the boat told me so. He said he saw how impressed you were with his kingdom and wanted to let you know that he would be happy to give you a personal tour anytime.” Aaron hesitated then, glancing at me in the passenger seat. I gave him a blank stare, waiting him to push through his hesitancy to continue. When he turned back to the road, I prompted him:
“He said something else, didn’t he? I want you to tell me.”
Aaron nodded curtly, then shrugged. “He said the ocean will contain the fury man unleashes upon the world.” He gave me another quick glance, then coughed before he added: “Mankind has to learn to either breathe fire or breathe water, and he has one week left to decide.”