by Wendy Nikel
The steamship rattled into the harbor, spewing smoke and gasping its last breath. Luis gripped the handrail and leaned overboard, assessing the damage of the last night's storm. He cursed under his breath as he watched the wheel shudder to a stop. At least they'd made it back to the harbor; last night he hadn't been sure that was possible.
He spent the next hours unloading the cargo -- or what was left of it -- onto the steam carriages that would take it to its final destinations. With each water-damaged crate, Luis fell deeper into despair. He'd hardly had enough to keep the Marie-Louise afloat as it was. With the costs of repairs, he ought to just call it quits.
"Tough luck, eh?"
Luis spun around. A withered old mariner with a crooked spine cackled at him between missing teeth. The gears of an artificial leg creaked as he hopped from foot to foot.
"Go home, old man," Luis said, wiping his hands on his trousers. "It's nothing to you."
"Aye," he said. "Though, one never knows who might be of help when one's in dire need. Let me buy you a drink, sonny, and tell me your troubles."
Luis scoffed, but the man didn't leave. His mouth did feel a bit dry, and he could use a break. "Well, I ought not turn down a free drink," he said. The old man chuckled and scampered away. Luis had to pick up his pace to follow, and, had it not been for the loud rattling of his leg, would have lost him down the dark alleys.
"Confounded fool," he muttered to himself as the old man disappeared around another corner. When he rounded it, he nearly tumbled over the man, who just cackled at Luis' unsteady footing.
"Here's the place," the man said, thumping the sign:
"Neptune? The god of the sea?" Luis scoffed. "Well, I'd certainly like to have a word with him after last night. I reckon he owes me a thing or two."
The old man let out a watery chortle that sounded like something drowning. "Aye, if you say so, sailor."
Luis eyed him suspiciously, but a free drink is a free drink, and he could hardly afford to buy one of his own, so he followed the man through the worn, wooden door to the pub. Neptune's Lair looked like any other run-down place where tired sailors were known to waste their pay. A player organ piped merrily, its keys knocking up and down in time, but that was the only cheerful thing about the place. Gloomy, unshaven men lurked in gloomy, cobwebbed corners, yanking on ropes with pulleys to summon the barmaid to refill their drinks. Luis tried to avoid brushing against any of the other patrons, not wanting to start a fight in what looked like rough waters. He began to second-guess this free drink.
"You want a word with Neptune, eh?" the old mariner asked. He gestured grandly with a crooked arm, and Luis' eyes came to rest on a small alcove with a curtain of seaweed over the entrance. Seashells embellished the arched opening, and on either side of it large, bearded men with pitchforks -- no, tridents -- stood guard. Luis stopped, dumbfounded. He looked back to the mariner, but the old man had disappeared.
"He had best gone to get my drink," Luis muttered. He couldn't deny, however, that the strange man's words piqued his interest. Who was it, exactly, hidden behind this veil of dripping ocean greens? He approached ever so slowly, but just as he was about to push aside one of the long ropes of dripping seaweed, the sharp barb of a trident pressed firmly against his cheek.
"So sorry." He raised his hands in the universal display of innocence.
"Let him through," a voice from within the alcove boomed. Luis stepped back, uncertain now if he truly wanted an audience with whomever was behind the curtain. Before he had a chance to protest, however, the guard shoved him through.
In front of him sat a massive man, a giant of sorts, clothed in a robe of deep blue that seemed to ripple as he moved. His gray hair and beard swirled and churned like a thundercloud. He sat behind a round table etched with waves along the edge and with a seahorse as the sole support. Fire and smoke danced along the surface of the table, burning grooves that swirled in a spiral toward the center.
"Luis de la Valdez," the giant spoke. Luis startled, tearing his eyes from the dancing flames.
"How did you know my name?"
The giant laughed, a roar that sounded like waves rolling across the shore. "I am Neptune. I know many things. I also know that you feel I have wronged you.
Come, tell me your woes." He gestured to a chair of bright orange, shaped like a shell. Luis sat down, but never took his eyes from the giant.
"My steamship," he said. "She was destroyed in last night's storm. I haven't the money to fix her."
"And you blame me for this misfortune?"
Luis dared not nod, but did not deny it, either.
"Ah," Neptune said. "There's but one thing to do."
"What's that?" Luis glanced towards the seaweed curtain, wondering if he ought to leave now while he had the chance.
"I have a proposition. You need money to fix your boat, and I -- well, I have a need as well."
"What could the god of the sea possibly need?"
"That which was stolen from me."
Luis' ears perked up. "Who'd dare steal from you?"
"I'll tell you all," he said softly, "if you agree to retrieve it for me."
Luis' eyes darted back to the curtain. He still had a chance to leave, to cut his losses and start anew. If he could truly get the god of the sea indebted to him, though...
"I accept your offer."
"Fine!" Neptune laughed and threw up his hands in delight. "Your task, Luis de la Valdez, is to dive to the underwater city of Atlantis and retrieve the pearl which has been stolen from me."
"Dive to Atlantis?" Luis rose from his seat, cursing himself for his foolishness. "You can tell whoever orchestrated this ruse that they can have their laughs. I ought to have known--"
As Luis turned to leave, a rush of saltwater dashed down from the walls of the alcove, blocking his path and sweeping him neatly back into his seat. He gripped the arms of the chair, watching in wild fascination as the water drained out through the geometric design on the floor.
"This is no trick, Luis," Neptune said. "You'll see the tinkerer now."
The tinkerer was expecting him.
"I've certainly never taken orders from a deity before," the tinkerer laughed nervously, adjusting the goggles on his head. His already-wide eyes grew exponentially larger under the lenses. "He said you'd need an apparatus for diving underwater, under great pressure, for hours at a time."
"This is lunacy," Luis muttered, looking around the tinkerer's shop. Gadgets and gizmos of all manner hung from wires across the ceiling. Some had sharp, jagged edges, and others smooth, glassy surfaces. Luis had no idea what any might be used for.
"Ta da!" The tinkerer held up a contraption that looked like a barrel. Inspecting it more closely, Luis could see that it was made of some sort of metal, and that inside were bladders, like those in a dirigible.
"And I'm to wear that? You cannot be serious."
It took nearly an hour of adjustments to wedge Luis into the underwater device. He stood upon the dock with his teeth firmly clenching the mouthpiece and the bladders pumping air in and out of his lungs.
"Well, go on then," said the tinkerer, but Luis was frozen in place.
"You're sure this will work?" he asked through his teeth.
The tinkerer shrugged. "I don't see any reason why it wouldn't. You do know where you're going once you get down there?"
Luis nodded. Neptune had given him clear instructions.
"Well then," the tinkerer said. "Off you go. You have three hours' worth of air in there." He tapped the outside of the barrel, and something within it clinked loudly. "Heh heh. Off you go."
Luis stepped off the dock, certain that he would immediately sink to the bottom of the ocean and drown. At least then his troubles would be over.
Yet, with some surprise, he realized that he was actually able to breathe through the mouthpiece, and the bladders within the contraption were light enough to keep him from sinking. He kicked tentatively and let out a bubble of laughter as the propellers attached to the device began rotating, shooting him forward at a pace much faster than he'd ever have been able to swim on his own. This was truly the work of a genius, probably worth a great deal of money, though he'd never tell that scatterbrained tinkerer he thought so.
Perhaps, when this was all over, he'd just keep this device for himself and make a few coins off the design...
The movement of his feet powered a generator which lit a headlamp, brightening the murky sea. It didn't take him long to discover the underground tunnel that Neptune had described, just off the cove. He gazed in awe at the vaulted stone ceilings overhead. The Gothic architecture reminded him of the Catedral de la Santa Cruz y Santa Eulalia in his beloved Barcelona. Ah, what beauty, what majesty... what wealth!
He was so engrossed in his musings of gold and riches that he nearly missed the third tunnel to the left, which Neptune promised would lead directly to Atlantis. From there, he only needed to sneak into their most sacred temple and retrieve the pearl. He anxiously rubbed a hand along the mechanized trident which the tinkerer had provided. At the push of a button, its barbs would shoot out like spears with enough force to break bones.
Luis only hoped he wouldn't need to use it.
The tunnel narrowed. Luis' underwater gear scraped along the edges of the stone. The rocks over his head shifted slightly; any wrong move would send them tumbling down. Slowly, he inched his way through.
Once free, he shuddered at the realization of how close he had come to being buried alive. The giant Neptune would have surely caused a cave-in trying to squeeze his bulk through.
When the tunnel opened once more Luis finally saw it -- Atlantis.
It shone like a thousand stars, glittering with iridescent lights from millions of tiny, luminous creatures.
Buildings of all sizes, shaped from coral of every shade of color imaginable blossomed from the ocean floor.
And the people!
Luis gaped at them, staring in awe at their elaborate gowns, suits, and hats composed entirely of algae and shells. A pair of men approached the pillar where Luis was hiding, conversing in tones that sounded surprisingly clear. Luis leaned forward. It was then that he noticed thin, metallic collars around their necks, with flaps that opened and shut periodically, much like--
"Gills!" he said. A large bubble of air floated out before him. Could it be that in those simple collars they could breathe underwater like fish? What a miraculous contraption! People would pay good money for something like that.
They glanced in his direction, and Luis darted behind the pillar. Swimming carefully around the nearest building, he scanned the streets for what might be the temple. He found it in the center of the city, more brilliantly lit than any of the other buildings.
Atlanteans swam in and out of the center courtyard, within which Luis could see a table just like the one in Neptune's Lair, only much larger. The seahorse sculpture that held it up was nearly as large as he was tall, and on the circular tabletop, amid a fire that burned even under the sea, was a pearl the size of his head.
Luis let out a breath, sending bubbles floating upward from his nose. There was no way he'd be able to retrieve the pearl with his heavy, metal contraption strapped to him. If only he had one of the collars; then he could pretend to be an Atlantean, and perhaps get close enough to snatch it.
With that determination, he floated towards the outskirts of the city, peering through the gaps in the coral structures into the Atlanteans homes and shops.
The treasures he saw there astounded him -- rubies and diamonds, emeralds and gold. Even their eating utensils were made from the finest metals, and all of it unguarded. Soon, Luis' pockets bulged with all the riches he could hold.
A glimmer of silver refocused Luis' wandering mind. A collar! It lay, unguarded, on a tablet of stone within one of the coral rooms. After making certain that no one was watching, Luis darted in through a large opening that acted as a window and snatched up the collar. Looking around the cozy domicile, he also gathered a robe of algae to drape over his own clothing. Once safely outside, he ran his hands over the sleek piece, admiring the metalwork. Before he could think twice, he raised the band to his own neck and snapped it shut around his throat.
The metal contracted and Luis gasped. Instead of sucking in water, however, cool, fresh oxygen entered his lungs. He could breathe! With a laugh that sounded as clear as in air, he shed the clunky underwater mechanism and -- freed from its bulk -- kicked off towards the temple.
As he dove into the temple, the Atlanteans barely batted an eye at him. He grinned as he swam past them, headed straight for the pearl. What a simple task! And what fun! Without the cumbersome underwater apparatus, he felt so free!
He swooped down and with a single swipe, he snatched up the pearl. He tucked it in the crook of his arm and swam as fast as he could for the tunnel.
"The pearl!" an Atlantean woman shouted.
"He's an outsider!"
The Atlanteans swam after him en masse, but Luis had always been an exceptional swimmer, and he had quite a head start on his pursuers. He'd forgotten, however, that these people were ocean dwellers. By the time he reached the tunnel, they were nearly at his heels, and he cursed himself for dropping his mechanized trident along with his underwater gear.
He slithered through the tunnel, outracing the Atlanteans' shouts. When he reached the narrowest section, he slid through much more easily without his gear, but once he was through, he paused. Flipping onto his back, he kicked at the ceiling of the passage.
Hands reached through the tunnel, but just as they were about to close around his leg, the rock above them crumbled down, blocking the entrance.
Atlantis was shut off from the rest of the world once more.
Luis swam through the tunnel with the vaulted ceilings, but dared not stop to admire them. Neptune would be waiting.
The thought had just crossed Luis' mind when there he was, in all his underwater glory: the god of the ocean himself. Underwater, he seemed even larger, fiercer, and more intimidating. His chest was bare and instead of legs, he had the tail of a fish.
"You've brought my pearl."
Luis held it out. "That I have. Now, where is my reward?"
Neptune gestured to his left, where a treasure chest full of golden doubloons spilled out over the ocean floor. Luis sunk to the sand beside it and kneaded the gold between his fingers.
"I'm rich!" he sang out. "Rich! Forget the Marie-Louise! I shall build the biggest, most beautiful palace in the entire world with these riches! I'll have dozens of servants! Just wait until I--"
His hands reached up to free himself from the silver collar, but the metal tugged at his skin, as if they had been fused together. He pried at it with his fingernails, but try as he might, it would not break free. Luis kicked to the surface, but -- to his horror -- the air was unbreathable. Gasping, he ducked back underwater.
"Neptune!" he shouted, clutching at the collar. The god of the ocean was nowhere to be seen, but his laughter -- a roar like rolling waves -- could be heard throughout the sea.
When she's not writing about time travel, space ships, or mythical islands, Wendy Nikel enjoys drinking coffee, playing video games with her husband, and building Lego race cars with her two sons. A list of previously published and coming soon works are available at wendynikel.wordpress.com/short-stories/