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Troglobiont

by Aleksandar Žiljak

His world is darkness. The only constant in his life: impenetrable, eternal, surrounding everything, from birth in the shallow channel to death in the freezing torrent. His world is water. Cold and clear, sinking from the distant surface through cracks and swallow-holes, dissolving and building at the same time. Water that brings life, water that washes away the dead. His world is rock. Limestone sculptured into unimaginable beauty, invisible in the total darkness. Gours, lacy draperies and rows of curtains. Stalactites like hanging spears, stalagmites resembling erect monuments. Mighty pillars supporting vast galleries. Cascades of rimstone pools and echoing cathedrals above spacious lakes. And water dripping in the distance, drip, drip, drip, resonant in the same slow rhythm, unchanged for millennia.

He is two meters long. His body is strong, nimble, his skin smooth and colourless. A layer of fat protects him from the cold. His legs are fins, steering him in the water, pulling and pushing his body if he has to cross the dry land. His tail is long and flattened, propelling him in snake-like movements through the dark water as he travels his world.

His jaws are elongated into a beak, armed with needle-sharp teeth. He preys upon small animals schooling in the quiet shallows and dark deeps. He is blind, eyes stunted, covered by skin. His world is darkness. Nevertheless, he uses ultrasound to create a good image of his world. He knows exactly where he is, where he has to go, how deep it is, and if there’s prey swimming there.

 His name is Butto. Butto’s world is underground, a complex of flooded caves stretching across hundreds of kilometres, vast, quiet, dark, secluded. He’s an inhabitant of this world. His mother gave birth to him here, he grew up here, he feeds here, he’ll find mate here, he will finally die here. Butto is a troglobiont.

* * *

Vesna leans against a stalagmite. She put her helmet down on the slippery rock next to her. She dimmed her light, as the charges won’t last forever. She listens carefully for a voice, shouting, calling, anything that would tell her they are here, close, looking for her. But, the dripping of the water is all that greets her from the darkness.

She’s fortunate to be alive. And she’s mad at others, oh so clever. Now they did it! She told them to wait for the showers to stop completely, so they can be absolutely certain the flood won’t catch them unawares. But no, Vance was in a hurry. So what’s he waiting for now, it’s been a whole day already?

And then Vesna calms herself down, anger won’t do her any good. The swollen water started rising with amazing speed. The sky must have opened up there, all of a sudden, the way it happens at this time of the year, and all that rainwater burst through the karst soil, pouring into subterranean rivers. Nothing unusual, nothing new, that’s how these caves were created, after all. Only, this time the five of them were underground. A speleological team, Vance, Tom, Yuri, Misha and Vesna. And they barely managed to put their artificial lungs on before the water rose to their chins, literally, and then over, the flood washing them down the channel. Hands grabbed desperately, trying to get a hold of something, anything, but the water was strong and the rocks were wet and slippery. And then somebody made it after all, perhaps it was Misha. Vance was next, they grabbed the ropes, pulling others from the flood. Then Tom managed to get a foothold, and then Yuri. A little bit more and they would have made it.

But, somebody up there deliberately poured more, and more, and more. And as Tom and Vance tugged at the rope, and Yuri gave her a hand, a new brunt of water carried Vesna out of their reach, slamming her with full force against the rock. Her vision blackened, her helmet was all that saved her from a fractured skull. The savage flood threw her to and fro, and then the rope snapped. Just like that, like a piece of thread. Not some old rope, but special life-line, tested and certified, that should have endured strains ten times more than that with no problem. Maybe it chafed against the rock, who knows?

The water carried half-conscious Vesna away. Without her helmet and specially padded clothes to absorb impacts, it’s doubtful that anything would have been left of her. If she didn’t have her lungs on, she would have drowned. It’s all murky to Vesna now: all she recalls is rushing down the subterranean rapids. Everything was roaring and foaming, like some savage beast bent on crushing her. Suddenly, Vesna found herself weightless in the air and then she was falling, screaming. Then, a splash as she hit the surface, her body curtained by bubbles as she sank. Vesna desperately tried to follow the bubbles caught in the light atop her helmet. She pushed herself up, after the bubbles, and her head broke through the foaming surface. An underground waterfall, perhaps five meters high, roared above her. Vesna was swimming for her life, arms and legs working automatically. She doesn’t remember how long it was before she finally felt hard bottom under her feet.

Now she’s here, on the shore of a lake that seems to have no end. Her light does not reach the roof, nor the other shore. The hall is bigger than her wildest imagining. The deafening waterfall quieted more than twelve hours ago. The flood is over, the surface of the lake is calm again. And Vesna is waiting, alone in the dark.

* * *

Wrangel 4 is a planet relatively poor in life. Primitive plants on land, algae in the sea. Some animals, but very few vertebrates, and nothing bigger than a cat. The life in the shallow seas is richer, but not as rich as it should be. And Wrangel once teemed with life, first digs revealed fossils of thousands of different species, more than those discovered alive.

The reason can be seen from the orbit. The crater is almost two hundred kilometres across, its edges barely touched by erosion. The comet hit the planet not more than a million years ago. The impact ejected enough material to blank the sun for centuries. Fires eradicated almost all plant life, starvation and freezing cold took care of the animals. Only the most modest and the toughest survived the fiery holocaust. Shaken, hard-hit, but not defeated, life started anew in small, shy steps. Therefore, few species, and nothing bigger than a cat.

And then, five years ago, a surprise. The river resurging from the karst landscape threw out a creature almost a meter long. In a condition of advanced decay, but preserved enough to distinguish a spindle-shaped body and fins and strong tail. And that wasn’t all: subterranean rivers brought seventeen more species to light. Underground, protected from the consequences of the catastrophe, is an entirely different world. Vesna is but one of about hundred scientists who have begun to enter it.

* * *

The lake is huge, deep, dark. Butto knows it well. The ultrasound waves that Butto emitted reflected back from the prey, a small animal of flattened body that sensed him and is now trying to evade him. Butto sends a new signal, like a blow, this time not to discover, but to stun. And, as if shaken by some invisible force, the animal’s escape turns into headless struggling. One stroke of the tail, a snap of jaws and the prey is caught. Sharp teeth won’t let it get away, no matter how much it struggles.

Butto swims on, towards the shore. He tastes fresh water and hears the thundering waterfall. But, his sensitive hearing discovers something else, splashing and thrashing on the surface, as if somebody is struggling in an attempt not to sink. Butto emits an ultrasound beam in that direction, and the reflection he receives confuses him completely. Because, the image he creates is of some completely unknown creature. A body. A head, somewhat detached from the body. No tail. Butto has never heard of a creature without a tail. Two pairs of long fins, but it seems they are not completely adapted to swimming.

The creature swims to the shore, and Butto follows it quietly and unobtrusively, only breaking the surface for the briefest of moments to inhale air. And then the creature enters the shallows, and when Butto expects it to turn around and swim back into the deeper water, it pulls itself out. Butto also leaves the water occasionally, when he has to cross a narrow ridge that separates the shallow lakes here and there. But, it seems that the dry land is the unusual creature’s natural environment.

Then, for the first time, Butto has an unbelievable, unimaginable notion. What if the creature arrived from the surface?

* * *

Vesna wonders how long she can survive in the cave. The water is no problem, and she has two more packages of daily rations. Maybe she could fish in the shallows. But she has no possibility of starting a fire. And she must use her battery charges sparingly; the darkness around her is total and she’ll break something if she walks around with no light.

Vesna knows she has to wait. The torrent thundered past and when the others reach the surface, they’ll organize a rescue operation immediately. And it’s not much of a skill to follow the channel: they should get here soon.

Suddenly, Vesna is startled by something in the water, close to the shore. She intensifies the light, the beam sweeping across the surface and yes, there, over there, she can see ripples! Something surfaced for a moment and then disappeared in the deep darkness. Vesna keeps on searching, but she sees nothing more and she dims the light with anxiety around her heart.

Don’t be silly, Vesna scolds herself as she sits back. There’s nothing here, nothing big. There cannot be, the habitat won’t support it. Neither prey nor predators. All they found were mostly small animals, even the few predators they discovered. Only one had sharp teeth, but needle-like and quite brittle, they would barely penetrate her protective clothes, let alone injure her. And then Vesna casts another glance at the dark surface of the lake and rises to sit somewhat farther away from the shore.

* * *

Of course Butto has heard of the surface: his mother told him. It is a place from where the water comes. The dead go there. Some believe, mother also told him in the dark deeps, that it is never dark on the surface. Who, or what, lives on the surface, nobody knows. What is beyond the surface, no-one returned to tell, either.

And now, a creature that he has never heard of is on the shore before him. A creature that could have arrived only from the surface. It was certainly brought here by the rapids. Butto feels that the creature is lonely and scared, as this is not its world. It will not survive here. It remains there for a long time, not going anywhere, just coming cautiously to the water from time to time. Butto hears it taking water. He’s somewhat puzzled, not being familiar with the notion of drinking. Does the creature intend to stay here? Has it resigned itself to its destiny and is now waiting to die? Or did it descend all the way down to take shelter, as some claim Butto’s species did once, a long time ago, when fire descended upon the world.

Then, suddenly, silence is torn apart by a shrill, piercing sound that Butto hears for the first time in his life.

 * * *

Vesna jumps to her feet, her heart beating as she reaches for her own whistle under her jacket, and blows it with all her power. She grabs her lamp and intensifies the light to the maximum, directing the beam towards the cascade she fell across. Whistles echo across the hall and Vesna sees strong light beams in the distance, stronger than ordinary speleological lights, tearing the darkness apart. And as echo brings Vance’s voice, Vesna hears splashing in the water. Close, very close, several meters from the shore. She turns the light in that direction, but too late, ripples on the surface are all she sees. Whatever it was, it eluded her again. But, she’ll return, she knows as she replies Vance’s calls. The caves are huge, hiding many secrets which wait for her to discover them.

* * *

The creatures from the surface left and peace returned upon the lake. Butto heard them calling to each other, talking to each other. He sensed a spark in them that he thought only his kind possesses. Now he knows he was wrong. And he knows, he is certain, that the creatures from the surface will return into the darkness of the underground. He doesn’t know what they search for, but as he rushes through the water, looking for others of his kind to tell: he hopes they are searching for him. And his kind.

They are troglobionts. Their world is underground. Darkness. Water. Rock. But, now they know they’re not alone any more.

Translated by Aleksandar Žiljak

Original title „Troglobiont“

Copyright © 2001 by Aleksandar Žiljak

Aleksandar Žiljak was born in Zagreb, Croatia, in 1963 and studied at the Faculty of Electrical Engingeering. Since 1997 he is a fulltime artist, specialized in wildlife illustration and science fiction paintings. Since 1991 he is also active as a writer and has established himself as one of the leading Croatian sf writers. His first story collection was published in 2004. He received the Croatian Sfera Award five time for his short stories and illustrations. He was involved in the InterNova project from early on and has contributed several stories and nonfiction to the German Nova. A translation of one of his finest stories, „Ultamarine“, was published in Nova 17.

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