A warm summery afternoon finds Benjy out on Atacama Lake for a fishing trip with his pop. The sun is blazing and they brought towels and bathing suits, but there are too many other fishermen out on the lake to go swimming. Someone might report them to the park police, that would be a whole ordeal. It could be done, but it might be risky. It’s a risk Benjy and his pop have taken many and many’a, but a risk is a risk nonetheless.
However, it doesn’t seem like they’re going to take the risk on this particular day. Benjy’s pop is holding something in both of his hands, something he dredged up when his hook got snagged on the bottom a little bit ago and he had to jerk it free, and even through Benjy’s sunglasses the resplendent thing is painful to look at. What’s more, the boat is leaning to one side because of where Benjy’s pop is standing, and he seems to be muttering to himself. The man is so entranced by his shiny little piece of Wuester detritus that he doesn’t even notice he’s about to flip the boat.
“Pop, what is it?” Benjy asks for the third time.
As far as his pop is aware, this is the first time Benjy’s said a word since he started reeling. “It’s uh… you know the story about the first time I came out here, right Benj’?”
“Sure, Pop,” Benjy says, nodding with haste.
“Well this is one of the glasses. The one they gave me, amazingly enough.” Benjy’s pop sits down and the boat wobbles back into balance. “Never did find out what really happened that night. They said it was a meteor, but…”
“But what, Pop?”
Benjy’s pop shakes his head. “But nothin’, I suppose that’s just what it was. Y’know boy, sometimes I wonder why I got to survive when all them other boys had to die. Had the littlest thing changed… like, say I brought a sweater with me. The lake gets chilly at night, it’s something I could have done. It would have gotten soaked when I fell into the water, would’ve weighed me down easy. I wouldn’t have been able to swim back to shore. I’d be in the ground today, in the ground right next to my friends.”
Knowing better than to look at his pop when the man is crying, Benjy averts his gaze and grabs one of the six identical fishing poles lying about the boat. The one he takes has a funny reel on it, it’s much wider than the reels on the other poles. It looks like a spool of fishing line you’d pick up at Fred’s Tackle down on the county road for a buck’ninety-nine, fill yer pockets, boi.
Benjy tries casting a line but it doesn’t go well. He tries again. And again. And then again a few more times, Benjy loses count, but at some point he feels his pop’s hand fall on his shoulder.
“That there’s a fly reel, boy. It don’t work like the other ones.”
Benjy does his best to reel the line in quickly. “How’s it work, Pop?”
“Tell you the truth, Benj’, I don’t really know.” Benjy hands the pole over when he has the line all reeled in. “It was my Pop’s, he had a big collection of fishin’ stuff and he gave me this one day, around the time you were born. It has a whole little kit that goes with it. I like to take it out here as a good luck charm, I don’t never use it’r nothin’.”
“Oh,” Benjy says with some reverence.
The two are silent for a moment. Then, Benjy’s pop gets two different poles lured up and hands one to Benjy. “You never know what lives in a lake like this, boy. It’s near three hundred feet deep out thur by that buoy in the middle. Why don’t we mosey over yonder and see if we cain’t catch a monster today?”
‘You have five minutes, and be discreet. If you get caught, we–’
‘We both get caught, I know,’ she insists. ‘I know what I’m doing, don’t worry.’
Strangely enough, this doesn’t stop the guard from worrying. Venturing outside The Compound is risky business for everyone involved, a fool’s gamble if ever there was one, and none else but the daughter of a very powerful Dali warlord wants to play the wager. No matter what he does his life is on the line, has been ever since she came up here and made eye contact with him, but there’s a chance she’ll get away with it. If he refuses her and she says as much to her father he’s dead no matter what happens, and she’d probably still try to go for a swim afterwards. So why not help the girl?
‘Are you pressing the button or not?’
The guard shakes his head a bit and comes back to reality. He can see her through the window of the air lock, her gills are showing. They’re beautiful, like the leaves of a scarlet strain of coontail… if only he could join her out there and reveal his own gills, feel the water flowing through them… no. He knows the consequences of abandoning his post.
The guard nods at Castilla and presses the big release button. The chamber on the other side of the window fills with water, then the lights go out. A dampened sound of metal sliding against metal announces the opening of the outside door – nothing left to do now but wait and hope she returns without being followed.
A Real Trooper
The deeper he swims the colder the water gets. The icy, murky depths seem to swallow him with every strained stroke he makes, like he’s working himself down the gullet of the massive monster who lives at the bottom of this lake. Allegedly lives at the bottom of this lake; Jembi’s never seen the creature himself and he swims here all the time. There’s probably not any creatures; it would be hard for something like that to live in Atacama Lake anyway, what with everything going on beneath it.
“Folks never used to be allowed to swim here, y’know,” says the staticky voice of Jembi’s pop through the wireless earbud. “There were a lot of things folks couldn’t do before… well, you know the story. I tell you at least a hundred times a day.”
‘You sure do, Pop,’ Jembi sends up through the water and into his pop’s mind.
“We changed things, our family,” prides Jembi’s pop. “Changed ‘em in a big way. And it all started here… kinda funny, your grandpoppa lived in Wuester near all his life and never once came out here, and the night he finally did… well, you know the story. Say, how deep are you now, Jemb’? You near the bottom yet?”
Jembi hits a button on his watch, sending a beam of artificial sunlight swimming through the darkness until it collides with the mucky, litter-clad bottom of Atacama Lake. ‘Yeah Pop, I’m gettin’ close. You said they’d be shiny, right?’
“Yeah,” says the gravely voice of Jembi’s pop. “There should be five of ‘em, maybe near some pieces of a boat. If we can find ‘em, your grandpoppa’s going to be thrilled, Jembi.” A short pause. “You, I mean. If you can find ‘em. Hell, I’m just up here sittin’ in this boat, I ain’t divin’ down sixty some odd feet. You’re a trooper, boy. A real trooper.”