Authors: Cassandra Pierce
“She doesn’t care about our long and distinguished history,” Janko said, laughing. “What she really wants to ask about is the whole multiple-partner thing. Right, Maura?”
“Well…it is kind of unique, you have to admit.”
“It’s our custom,” Daq said with a nod. “Our primary social unit consists of one woman and a group of men who come together voluntarily. We’ve done things that way for thousands of years.” He answered her next question before she had a chance to ask it. “There’s no jealousy between us because we’re all connected. It’s not exactly what human call a psychic link, but more of a subconscious bond that keeps us together. Sharing a woman feels as natural to us as living in a cooperative pod. Historical reasons exist for the tradition, but I won’t get into those now.”
Ivar’s smile widened. “Woman shortage,” he confided. “No need to dance around it. For some reason, there have always been more male Aquans than females. And our females don’t care for domesticity. They tend to take off and leave us guys to cultivate the coral gardens.”
This, perhaps, explained the apparent wanderlust of both Cyra and Ejan’s mother. She wondered if Daq and Cyra’s own mother had really been killed in a storm, as Cyra had told her, or if she had allowed herself to be washed away. The bond Daq spoke of probably accounted for the relationship between Tagin and Ejan, too. They’d simply taken things to the next level but left room for her.
“We wouldn’t force pod life on anyone, of course,” Janko went on. “Personally, we think it’s the best way, but some humans might not agree, and that’s fine. There are a lot of pods, though, with a human woman at the center.”
“So that’s what Cyra meant when she said her other lovers had chosen someone unsuitable.”
Janko nodded. “Exactly. She was hoping they’d pine over her forever after she took off on them. As it turned out, they decided not to wait around. Can’t really blame them. Sorry, Daq.”
“Never mind Cyra.” The mention of his sister made Daq visibly annoyed again. “I plan to deal with her later.”
“Actually, I’m glad she told me,” Maura said. “I’d thought all along that something wasn’t quite…right, but of course I never expected anything like this!” Another realization struck her then. “Did you start to tell me that Septimus knew all about this?”
“Yes,” Daq said. “He’s known Cyra and me since we were young, but Janko came later, and Tagin and Ejan are fairly new additions to our family unit. He didn’t grasp all the details right away, but over the years he was able to put a lot together on his own. Eventually, we told him everything. He’d taught us so much that we wanted to give something back to him. Besides, we felt he would understand the situation and protect us.”
“Of course he would.” Maura thought again about the mythological tales he’d entertained Irissa’s party guests with. He’d spoken only in general terms, she was sure, and no one had taken him seriously anyhow.
Or had they?
A troubled feeling came over her. She knew now what Septimus had wanted to tell her about once she arrived on the island. He’d called it the most amazing discovery he’d ever made or even heard of. And he hadn’t exaggerated. An entirely new race of people, if true, constituted nothing less than a total paradigm shift that could affect the entire scientific world.
Had someone killed him to protect the secret?
By the time the guys finished their explanation, Maura found herself more perplexed than ever. Assuming what they said was true—and, as a scientist, she wasn’t quite ready to make that leap—how did Septimus fit in? Suddenly, all his notes about underwater archaeology and mysterious life forms began to take on new meaning.
Had the wrong person overheard him at Irissa’s party? Had he gone off to find proof?
Daq’s voice interrupted her drifting thoughts. “Well?” He had obviously said more, but she hadn’t heard the preceding words. When she looked at him, he seemed to understand. “I asked if you had any questions,” he said gently.
Maura exhaled heavily. “More than I can formulate right now.”
“We know,” Janko said, getting up from the table. “Septimus had a lot to ask us, too. We just took things slow with him.”
“I think I need to process this for a while.” Maura followed him to his feet. “Do you mind if I…?”
Her voice trailed off, but Daq nodded. “Take as much time as you need. When you’re ready to talk, just tell us. We have nothing to hide from you, Maura. We want to explain everything. The truth is...Cyra is right about one thing. We do hope you’ll stay here with us.”
“You mean…permanently?” She swallowed. In some ways, his admission didn’t come entirely as a surprise, but to hear him broach the subject of cementing their unusual relationship made her nervous.
“That’s exactly what I mean. Don’t bother telling me it never crossed your mind.”
“Of course it has,” she said quietly. “I don’t deny this place is beautiful…and I’d say my feelings about all of you are pretty apparent, too. But don’t you think it would be premature to make any plans for the future until we know what happened to Septimus?”
“She’s right,” Ivar said. He moved to stand beside Maura and gave her hand a squeeze. “Now that this whole thing is out in the open, we need to get back to searching for Septimus. Is it worth making the rounds of the guest houses and tourist spots again?”
“Couldn’t hurt,” Ejan said. “I was going to drop by my mother’s place today anyhow. Without all the party noise, Tagin and I can ask around more efficiently.”
“Get to it, then,” Daq said with a nod. The pair left the room, each kissing Maura’s cheek on their way out. “What about you two?” he asked Ivar and Janko.
“I hate to say this, but I guess we could search the bottom of the bay one more time,” Janko said. “I don’t want to believe Septimus drowned, and trust me, Maura, all of us spent days down there making sure he wasn’t snagged on a reef or something. But it wouldn’t hurt to take another peek.”
“You mean you’re going to go diving for him?” Maura asked.
“Not in the way you might think.” Janko gave her a wry smile and puffed out his neck the way Cyra had done. The black slits she’d thought were tattoos flared open, then receded. “No oxygen tanks required. We can stay down there as long as we need to. Want to help, Ivar?”
“You bet. Just to be able to say once and for all that we found nothing, and he isn’t down there.”
They followed their friends out of the house, leaving Maura and Daq alone again. Maura couldn’t help marveling at the prospect of Janko and Ivar wandering the deep without any need for diving equipment. How could such things be possible? And even if they were, she, too, hoped they would find no trace of Septimus at the bottom of the bay.
“He either left by swimming or walking,” Daq told her. “The boat and the Jeep were both still here.” He smacked a fist into his open palm. “This is my fault. I should have started looking right away, and more aggressively. I just never dreamed he wouldn’t come back by nightfall. He always did before.”
“We’ll figure it out. We have to be optimistic,” she said and then paused. “Daq…do you think it’s possible someone wanted to hurt Septimus because of what you told him? You know…silence him? Could there be others…like you who didn’t want to take a chance on him spreading your story?”
“Hard to believe. My people are peaceful and always have been. It’s one of the reasons our ancestors were driven from Lemuria eons ago. Besides, a handful of humans in various places already know about us. Others dismiss them as New Age fanatics or the like. We’ve had thousands of years to learn how to keep a low profile.”
Maura nodded, admitting to herself that she would have been one of the first to label anyone presenting such a tale as fact, but inwardly she continued to wonder. Was Daq being naïve? How could he say for certain that no one on the island wanted to stop Septimus either from telling about or possibly profiting from his knowledge?
One thing seemed certain—she needed to go back to the bungalow and reevaluate everything she’d seen in the journals, keeping this new information in mind.
“I still need some time to myself,” she said. “I just can’t help thinking the answer is in front of us. The right code will decipher it.”
Daq nodded. Then he gathered her in a tight embrace she found more reassuring than any encouraging words in any language…known to mankind or not. They kissed hungrily, almost desperately. Maura hoped with every fiber of her being that neither Daq nor his people were involved. She didn’t think she could ever be with him, or the others, if that turned out to be the case. And she did want to be with him again. With all of them.
He released her slowly, apparently aware how crucial this moment might turn out to be for them. The answers they would find—or not—could very well determine whether they had a future together.
“I’m doing everything I can,” Daq reminded her as she, too, slipped from the house. “Please believe me.”
“I do,” she said.
He smiled. “I’m glad.”
Back at the bungalow, which thankfully remained Cyra-free, Maura sat at the desk and retrieved the journal with the strange notations and drawings in it. When she’d looked at them before, she’d assumed they were random sketches with unreadable labels scrawled underneath them. Only now did she understand what the odd-looking diagrams and fantastical schematics represented. They were maps of underwater cities—complete with stone-paved roadways and currents to propel an aquatic traveler from one to another. The incredible hand-drawn atlas spread across two full pages of the journal, with a few spots labeled in Septimus’s scribbly penmanship. Had the guys described all this to him?
Her eyes, and then her fingers, traced the routes marked out on the paper. Some of the words began to sort themselves into familiar contours she could now decipher. She read them out loud, mortified that she’d been so slow to catch on.
All three civilizations had long been the subjects of myth, folklore, and speculation. New Age gatherings celebrated them, supposed psychics claimed to channel their denizens, and oceanographers like herself debunked them. Septimus had realized they weren’t mere myths.
Something else began to dawn on her, too. The password. She had tried many random words relating to Septimus’s studies, but not these.
Her hands shook as she turned on the computer. “Mu” she rejected right away because of its brevity. “Atlantis” yielded nothing.
Finally Maura typed in the last of the three words…
The system hummed and clicked as the software began to load. Moments later, a formatted document began to take shape on the screen.
She leaned forward and saw a letter from Septimus…addressed to her.
My dearest Maura,
First, I must apologize for the somewhat underhanded manner in which I enticed you to the island. I regret I could not divulge more detail in our initial correspondence, but I could not be certain how secure the documents would be.
In addition, knowing your fine scientific mind, I assumed—correctly, if you are reading this—that a touch of mystery would prove impossible to resist.
Since you have cracked the password code I left for you, you are now aware that my discovery involves the continuing existence of a secret civilization evolved from ancient sea dwellers whose history was lost to us. I assume the boys filled in most of the details. You have my word that what they speak is the truth. I obtained independent confirmation, as you will read below.
There is one aspect of the story I have not told even them. Yet, in some ways, this part alone matters.
I have long wondered, and you may have as well, how I came by my admittedly unusual first name, especially since I am an only child. I learned some years ago from Ejan’s mother, Irissa (I hope you met her, as she is a delightful hostess) that I was in fact the “seventh” member of an Aquan pod—the product of a human mother and her five Aquan companions. Unfortunately, the arrangement did not last and my mother chose to raise me alone, telling me nothing of my heritage. I do not know where the other members of the pod went. Perhaps, after all these years, they are resting, as is she.
As a hybrid, I inherited limited abilities compared to full-blooded Aquans. However, the boys, especially Daq, were kind enough to show me how to access those I can use—such as being able to breathe underwater. For years, I had wondered about the curious indentations on the sides of my neck, but assumed they were nothing more than a birthmark I chose to cover by wearing a bushy beard. As it happens, a few simple exercises enabled them to function as well as the fully formed gill-like apertures you have no doubt seen by now.
One night, I used the maps Daq assisted me in preparing and swam to another island. There I met beings like me and like Daq, Cyra, and the others. I also discovered that it might be time to reclaim a hope I had long ago abandoned.
As a young man, before I left for college in the States, I met a woman on the very beach you are overlooking now. As you were once my student, I don’t wish to embarrass you, but suffice to say that I had never given my heart before, and I have not given it since. We spent the summer together—in some ways the happiest season of my life—and then I departed the island. We promised to stay in touch, but I never heard from her again.