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The Curtain

“Meet me by the pinnacle,” Martin said as he spat into his mask and rubbed the lenses. “And save me some beer.”

Carlos tossed his empty bottle into the floor of the boat and yawned. “Better whistle. I might be asleep.”

“Then you’d better wake up. I’m not swimming all the way back.”

Martin fitted his mask and looked out across the bay between Laberinto Island and the mainland. The water was unusually still and the early hour lent a sickly quality to the light. Or perhaps it was just the aftermath of the storm.

“Looks weird, doesn’t it?” Carlos said, as though reading his brother’s thoughts.

“Yeah. But maybe it always looks like that. I can’t remember the last time I watched the sun come up.”

Martin tested his regulator and tightened the straps on his fins. “OK,” he said. “Fingers crossed for some not-too-buried treasure. Want anything while I’m down there?”

“Bring me a mermaid,” Carlos murmured sleepily. “Preferably a blonde.”

Martin grinned. “See ya.” With that he rolled backwards into the water with a splash. The sea closed over his head and he became weightless as he slipped beneath the waves.

Martin pinched his nose through the mask and blew to equalise the pressure in his ears. A high squeee sound filled his skull as his ears popped and then he was alone with his breathing. Each deep sibilant inhalation was followed by a soft stream of bubbles as he released the breath. The bubbles rose like thousands of tiny balloons racing into the sky. Above him the boat was a vague oblong shadow belonging to a different world. Down here he was part of the silence.

Greenish cloudy water engulfed him as he descended. For two days the hurricane had sat just off the coast, churning the sea and damaging the reef. Then, like an angry god, it had swept across Laberinto Island, knocking aside anything in its path as it headed inland.

Although the island had been evacuated, the hardier residents had stayed put, refusing to be driven out by what was only the second storm of the season. Laberinto was their home and livelihood and they weren’t about to abandon either one to the elements or the looters who would follow. Let the tourists seek shelter on the mainland; the locals would take their chances, as they had year after year.

Martin had been in the water the day before the storm hit, fascinated by the curious behaviour of the fish that seemed to know something was coming. They darted erratically, oblivious to his presence. Wide-eyed gulping groupers drifted as if in a daze, ignoring the frantic smaller fish flitting all around them. Easy prey, ignored. A line of crabs saluted him from behind the waving fingers of an anemone, then disappeared so quickly Martin wondered if he’d even seen them at all.

Today only murky clouds of debris and pulverised coral drifted around the disfigured reef. The underwater world felt as deserted as the island.

Martin and Carlos had weathered the storm behind the boarded-up windows of their parents’ house as they thrilled to the most dramatic hours of the hurricane’s passage. They’d stayed up all night, drinking and blaring music on Martin’s laptop until the battery died. Then there was only the screaming wind and the occasional thump as something was blown against the house.

It was just like when they were kids, deliberately stranding themselves in their treehouse during rainstorms. The treehouse would become a pirate ship lost at sea as the wind and rain lashed the flimsy wooden structure. There always came a point where genuine fear replaced the excitement, where they worried that their ship might truly sink. But the tree’s fort had always held and so did the house, a veteran of many such storms.

The treasure hunt had been Martin’s idea. Storms like this one nearly always took a few boats with them, but he had to get in the water before the salvage crews arrived. Here was a chance to explore while Laberinto was still a ghost town.

Martin kicked his fins and dived deeper, following the curve of the reef wall and equalising the pressure in his ears as he went. He had always felt at home in the ocean. From the moment he’d taken his first breath underwater he’d felt as though he belonged. On land he was graceless and ordinary; down here he could fly.

He swam through an icy patch and then the water was warm again. The strata of ocean currents seemed to have new and strange edges this morning. It was like passing through undiscovered rooms in a familiar but invisible mansion.

A cluster of menacing shapes loomed in his peripheral vision and he started with alarm. But they were only arms of coral and clumps of kelp, floating dead in the soupy water. There was bound to be a lot of that. As violent as the storm had been on land, it must have been positively demonic down here.

He soon came to the Three Sisters, an underwater cavern with three entrances. Each jagged passage led down into the labyrinth that gave the island its name. Thousands of years ago the entrances had been above ground, but flooding had submerged the entire cave system. It had never been fully penetrated. The natives believed it was a portal to the underworld.

The colony of Gorgonian sea fans that flanked the three openings had been destroyed. Fierce currents and clumsy divers often broke fingers off them but the hurricane had completely uprooted the elegant corals. They lay like fallen trees on the seabed.

Peering into the cave, Martin could see evidence of collapse. The first two entrances were obstructed by debris but the third was only partially blocked. He moved cautiously just inside and switched on his underwater torch. The light revealed stalagmites that now leaned crookedly or that had been crushed by falling rubble. Knots of seaweed clung to the outcroppings of rock, trailing like reptilian hair into the darkness within. It might be a sunken mine blasted into ruins. With a sad shake of his head Martin turned away from the cave and swam into the blue.

He checked the dive computer on his wrist. The Vyper’s display showed that he’d nearly hit forty metres. Going deeper would limit the time he could spend on the bottom, but there was an extra scuba tank in the boat in case he needed to make a return trip.

It was a shame Carlos didn’t dive. The world beneath the waves offered so much beauty and adventure and Martin wished he had someone to share it with. It was a privilege to be down here, gifted with sights and experiences most people would never know. Moving in three dimensions was an experience shared only by divers and astronauts in zero gravity. It was spectacular. But Carlos had never been able to see the magic in it; for him the ocean was simply a hostile environment. A cold unforgiving place fraught with danger.

“If we were meant to be down there we’d have gills,” he often said, sounding like their father. “No way am I putting my life in the hands of some machine to feed me air.”

Sarita had felt exactly the same. During their short-lived summer romance she had gone into the water with Martin only once, wading like a terrified child into a sheltered lagoon with him. She knelt down in the shallow water, hesitantly submerging her head, but she just couldn’t bring herself to breathe in through the regulator. Martin waited patiently, squeezing her hand for reassurance and gesturing up at the surface mere inches above them. Finally, she drew in a breath. Behind the mask her eyes widened with a kind of primal fear, as though she’d inhaled poison gas. Her instant exhalation was so violent the bubbles broke the seal on her mask and water leaked in. She panicked and shot up out of the water, tearing away the mask and regulator and gasping for air like someone nearly drowned.

Martin had never been able to understand the terror of the silent depths. Surely submersion was as natural for humans as for any aquatic species. Did we not spend nine months floating in warm water before the trauma of entering the gravity-bound world? Wasn’t there a theory that we’d evolved from the sea ourselves? Breathing enriched air through a hose made it possible to go back.

The visibility improved as he descended, but the murky water above him blocked the sunlight as effectively as a canopy of trees. He scanned the shadowy landscape with his torch as he dropped another few metres. In the dim glow he saw a flash of silver and as he swam closer a glittering curtain of fish parted to admit him. It was the first sign of life he had seen. They reformed and hovered, flickering, over a bulky object resting on the bottom about fifteen feet away.

He glided through thin strips of icewater that made him flinch as he neared the dark shape. Something gleamed brightly beside it. The slimy caress of a tentacle brushed his calf and he whirled to discover he’d tangled his fin in a length of seaweed. He kicked free of it and turned back to the shape. The fish danced just ahead of him.

A wooden crate had smashed into a large brain coral on its way down, gouging chunks out of it. Bottles of dark wine lay scattered amongst the splintered boards. Martin floated above, playing the torch beam over the debris. Reflected metal glinted from between the bottles on the sandy floor. Excited, he dropped down for a closer look.

He lifted a bottle out of the way and frowned at his discovery. A spoon. Beneath the other bottles lay forks and knives. His treasure was nothing but a jumble of spilled cutlery.

Dispirited, he held up one of the wine bottles and peered closely at the label. All he could tell was that it was from Chile and it wasn’t especially old. He didn’t know much about wine but he guessed that lying on the seabed wouldn’t have done it any good. He hadn’t exactly expected to find a Spanish galleon with a chest full of jewels but he’d hoped for something a little more interesting than some worthless plonk and flatware.

Something flashed past him with such surprising speed that he dropped the bottle. It fell silently, raising a cloud of sodden dust as it hit the bottom. Martin swept the beam around him in a circle, but couldn’t find anything in the gloom.

He checked the Vyper, relieved to see he still had plenty of time for a leisurely exploration. The computer would calculate the amount of time he could stay at any given depth without needing a decompression stop and it would warn him when he needed to surface.

A soft munching reached his ears, but he couldn’t tell which direction it was coming from. It was never entirely silent in the deep. The sea had its own voices. As he swam towards more debris his beam illuminated a school of blue pinstriped surgeonfish, nibbling on bits of wreckage, investigating every nook and cranny. They swam languidly aside as he passed among them, as though he were one of them.

Another shoal of silver fish hung suspended before him. Unless the same one had followed him. The small fish dispersed and rejoined like liquid metal, reforming into a curtain. Mesmerising. He swam towards them, expecting them either to scatter in fright or flow around him as the surgeonfish had done. But these fish didn’t move.

Martin floated in the water, staring as they held their position. He waved his hands at them as though shooing away flies. Their tails flickered, but the fish remained in place. Unnerved, he tried to swim around them but the shoal moved to block his path. He’d never known fish to behave so strangely, storm or no storm. He had the distinct feeling that he was not wanted here. But that was ridiculous. Their illusion of choreography was merely the work of a hive mind; there was no conscious decision, no sentience.

After watching them steadily for a few moments he charged straight at them, arms out in front of him, Superman-style. Their slick bodies brushed against his bare arms as he penetrated the blockade and once he was through they scattered in all directions.

A boat had come to rest here, all right. Smashed bits of the hull littered the seabed, its jagged points like bayonets at the ready. His torch unveiled a mangled instrument panel, a circuit board, part of a propeller.

Dark shapes slid past the wreck, just out of range of the light. Probably just some of the larger fish that lived in the bay—barracuda, jacks or tuna. None of them were aggressive. But what if they didn’t want him here either?

Martin picked his way around the splintered boards, finding only more cutlery and banal household rubble. His beam danced over a collection of ruined, soggy books. The shadows leapt, wavering.

The boat had come to rest on its port side. Hovering above the wreck, Martin used a finger to steady himself against the edge of a doorway as he peered closely into the main cabin. He checked his gauges and saw that he had plenty of air. The Vyper gave him ten minutes. If he went over that he’d be forced to stay under even longer for a decompression stop near the surface. With no time to waste, he propelled himself inside.

Something jumped in his torch beam and he watched in amazement as a butterfly glided past, its powdery wings all but disintegrated. Behind it bobbed a bloated caterpillar, like a woolly worm adrift in outer space. After a moment’s disorientation he saw that a framed insect collection had broken open and the occupants roamed free, their pins protruding like tiny weapons.

He swept his beam through the rest of the cabin, illuminating a few curious fish but nothing of interest or value. Beyond the main cabin was a bedchamber with two berths. The bedding had come loose and the sheets floated like aquatic ghosts in the dancing light. The head of an eel protruded from a hole in the floor, its sharp-toothed mouth opening and closing, its eyes cold and empty.

Martin poked around the berths, unearthing only crabs and fish. There was a surprising amount of sea life here for such a recent wreck. He had no idea how long a sunken boat took to form a natural reef but he wouldn’t have guessed so many creatures would move in overnight.

He turned to go and found himself snared by tendrils of seaweed. It coiled around his leg and took some pulling to remove. It seemed to have established itself in the cabin, looping in through the portholes and covering the walls like ivy. His torch revealed the extent of the coverage. Astonishing. The entire cabin was a jungle of vines. He brushed aside another creeper before it could get tangled in his hoses.

He swam out through the smashed hull, circling round to the main part of the wreck. And stopped short. A body was lying there.

It was a woman, lying on her back, arms outstretched like a sleepwalker. The gentle current rocked the body, giving it the illusion of life as the arms drifted back and forth with an eerie grace.

Martin had never seen a dead person before and the sight both frightened and fascinated him. He approached her slowly. Wisps of dark hair floated around her face and her long skirt billowed softly, as though stirred by a breeze. She might have been asleep but for her staring eyes. There was something inexpressibly sad about this person lying here, reaching up like a child wanting to be carried to bed.

Martin checked the Vyper. Five minutes. He should go up now and signal for Carlos, then contact the authorities and tell them about the body.

He was beginning his gradual ascent when he noticed another shape a few feet from the woman. He aimed the torch beam at it. It was another body. A man. He was positioned in exactly the same way as his companion—lying on his back, arms floating upward. Beside him lay a little boy. Beyond the child, there were more bodies.

Martin grew cold as the light showed him body after body. The people lay scattered along the ocean floor like sleepers in a huge dormitory, arms reaching up and swaying gently, eyes like those of the eel, gazing blankly. His breathing had become fast and shallow and when he realised it, he forced himself to calm down. He couldn’t afford to waste air like that.

As he slowed his breathing he tried to count the bodies. There were at least twelve that he could see, with more skeletal shapes just beyond the range of his torch beam. The sight chilled him. All those grasping arms, like some strange coral garden.

He looked back at the first body. Was he imagining it or had the woman’s head turned slightly towards him? His breathing suddenly seemed oppressively loud. There was something very wrong here, something important he felt he should have noticed.

An image came to him of Jonestown, its maze of boardwalks strewn with corpses. There was a kind of hellish peace about these underwater sleepers, as though they’d gone to their fate without a struggle. With a sinking feeling he realised what was wrong. They hadn’t floated.

He aimed his torch at the nearest bodies and his stomach twisted. They were trapped. Coils of seaweed encircled the legs and torsos like ropes, holding them all in place, binding them to the wreckage. And there was something else. Although their clothes were in tatters, the bodies themselves were untouched.

Martin shuddered, suddenly feeling watched. He could actually hear the shoal of strange silver fish behind him, their tails flickering softly in the water. Slowly he turned, sweeping the light around him in an arc. The fish were there. Staring at him.

A chilly trickle seeped into his mask and he readjusted it, expelling the water with a sharp snort that sent a torrent of bubbles to the surface. The boat was up there somewhere, invisible beyond the turbid water.

He kicked upwards rapidly, ignoring the warning beeps from the Vyper that he was ascending too fast. He didn’t care. He had to get out of there. His heart was pounding wildly and again he had to slow his breathing. He was nowhere near the agreed meeting point and if Carlos had fallen asleep Martin would have to swim to the boat. He could get there faster just below the surface than on it, but only if he didn’t waste his air.

He could see no sunlight through the murk. Tangles of seaweed drifted in every direction, winding around his arms and legs as though trying to restrain him. He thought of the bodies down below and fished out his knife, slashing at the vines as he kicked his way upwards.

A dark shape was swimming down to meet him and he froze. It couldn’t be Carlos but perhaps his brother had been intercepted by another boat. Well, if it was a salvage crew they could have this wreck; Martin wanted no part of it.

The shape became more distinct as it neared, approaching faster than a man could swim. Surely a fish wouldn’t dive straight down like that. As the object sank past him he saw with surprise that it was a scuba tank. He only had time to register what that meant before another shape began spiralling down towards him, this one trailing a dark cloud of ink. It was a man’s leg.

Martin screamed, losing his regulator and flailing wildly for a moment before regaining it. He watched helplessly as pieces of the boat began to appear through the darkness above him. The sea seemed stained with blood. A deafening howl filled his head as another shape, this one much bigger, much darker, began to descend. Not with the wild trajectory of a sinking object but with terrible, purposeful aim. Martin fled in the only direction left to him—down.

Again the Vyper bleeped urgent warnings at him but he’d have to take his chances with the bends now; he had no choice. Perhaps he could skirt the wreck and try to surface further away, as slowly as possible to allow the gases to leave his body safely. If he ran out of air and had to go up quickly he’d just have to hope someone was manning the decompression chamber on the mainland. If he could even get there.

The wreck and her sleeping crew slowly emerged as Martin reached the bottom again. He stared helplessly into the blue. The openness froze him. He would be completely exposed out there. Perhaps he was safer here for now, hiding from whatever had destroyed his brother’s boat. He hardly dared imagine what could have done it. He crouched behind a jutting piece of the hull and waited, trembling.

An arm with a familiar tattoo thumped silently to rest in the silt beside him. Martin’s eyes blurred with tears.

His torch hung loosely on a lanyard around his wrist, its beam casting aimlessly about in the gloom. He thumbed it off, worried it would give away his position. The darkness wasn’t total but even so it was constricting. The entire weight of the ocean pressed in around him, making him aware of just how small and insignificant he was in this alien world. Martin calmed himself as much as he could, slowing his breathing to conserve air, but the bubbles he expelled meant he couldn’t make himself invisible. He was the outsider here. Small dark shapes continued to rain softly down from above and he closed his eyes for a while so he wouldn’t have to see them.

There came a distant throbbing noise, a soft pulse of sound. At first he thought it was a boat’s engine but there was an unmistakable animal quality to it. It was the sound of something living. A voice. And with the voice came the certainty that whatever was hunting him had not just purpose but intelligence. It would find him and kill him. Or worse—keep him. As it had the others.

There was one place he might be safe—the Three Sisters. If he could reach the cave he could hide inside where his bubbles couldn’t give away his position to anything in the open water. Martin readied himself to make for the reef. He switched the torch on again. The fish were back.

They hovered, perfectly still, a screen between him and the reef wall. Watching him. As though they knew what he’d been planning. Their flat black eyes glinted with unnatural awareness, cold and calculating.

He lunged forward and pushed against their bulk but it was no use. Like quicksilver the fish surrounded him, creating a wall he couldn’t penetrate. Their scaly bodies scraped against his hands, scoring his palms with tiny cuts. He turned and tried to swim around them but they were too fast. They closed around him like a net, forcing him deeper, back to the wreck, past the area he’d already explored. He stared in horror at what lay beyond. The seabed was strewn with bodies as far as he could see.

The awful howl came again. Martin could feel its vibrations through the water in every direction. His body ached with the sound as the darkness pressed against him, crushing him. Disoriented, he swung his torch around but there was only emptiness. He lost his bearings, gasping for breath and unable to tell which way was up. He hung in the black abyss, powerless and frightened. From somewhere far away he heard the Vyper, but there was no need to look; he knew he was past the point of no return.

Slowly the pain subsided and the angles of the boat came into focus. He sank to the sandy bottom and knelt there like a penitent. He thought of the cave again, now impossibly distant. He was never meant to be here, never meant to see what he’d seen. The fish had tried to stop him seeing but now it was too late; they wouldn’t let him leave.

He peered into the distance and saw he wasn’t alone. The dead were sitting up, their heads turned towards him, their vacant eyes watching him. The torch guttered like a flame and went out.

Although he could no longer see clearly, Martin felt he was seeing more clearly than ever. The cave. He understood now, with a terrible clarity. A portal had been opened by the storm and something had emerged. Something that had been trapped there for a very long time.

He was going to die. Just like all the other islanders who had stayed behind. He accepted the realisation with calmness and something approaching euphoria. The water felt alive with movement and gradually the sense of an even deeper black began to swell in the distance. Martin felt himself straining to reach it, to become part of it. Oblivion.

He wondered if he could breathe without the scuba gear. So he released the catches of his buoyancy vest and eased the tank off his back. He peeled off his mask. He spat out the regulator and hesitated for only a moment before taking his first breath. The water entered his lungs easily and painlessly, warm and silky.

A glow flickered like candlelight beside him. The silver shoal. His guardians, his guides. The curtain parted as he swam through to take his place with the others. Then it closed behind him in the liquid dark.

Originally published in Postscripts, Issue 32/33, Far Voyager.

About the Author

Thana Niveau is a horror and science fiction writer. Originally from the States, she now lives in the UK, in a Victorian seaside town between Bristol and Wales. She has twice been nominated for the British Fantasy award—once for her debut short story collection From Hell to Eternity and once for her story “Death Walks En Pointe.”