What the seas bring

Soldiers emerge from the sea wrapped in hydrophobic, shimmering gauze, inhuman in profile, wearing the shells of giant snails as helmets. Warriors without faces, though the center of each nautilus swirl has the aspect of an eye. Marching in columns, their eerie lateral gazes piercing the heart of the city they’ve arrived to ravage.

Orderly, they proceed through the city, hollowing some buildings while ignoring others. Glass rains from the skyscrapers they invade. They take the bodies of their victims and build strange small monuments with bleached skulls, arrows and towers like the inuksuks of the north. When they leave a structure they desert it completely, leaving only those statues, bloodstains, and the ashes of cooking fires.

The troops that come to the city’s defense are soon afflicted by grief, obsession, hallucination. They search for runes in the towers, perceive invisible languages, sob into the pearl-white pebble skulls of infants. Those that meet them in battle swear their weapons are of ancient, magical essence, claim their glaives leave crystal facets where they strike, like carving an opal.

Their own bodies are never left behind. Speculations ignite: do they eat their dead comrades? Do they drag them away to reclaim their armor, or do they have a cauldron that revivifies the dead? Their numbers never waver.

Finally, one is captured, his corpse presented to the general’s coroner for inspection.

Doctor Venke had never seen anything like it. On the battlefield they stood taller than standard humans, but they were hunched over, and here, on the slab, it was well over seven feet tall.

Venke’s attendants were instructed to remove its armor, which turned out to be a painstaking process. The gauze seemed flimsy but she had seen it deflect bullets and blades. It wasn’t impenetrable, but lighter than any armor she had ever seen before. There were no visible buckles or anything that could be used to open it, and initial attempts to yank it off had only resulted in curses and bruises.

The chamber they stood in was underneath the main bastion of the Protector General, part of the hidden complex carved into the rock beneath the city. It was all tile and polished steel, as much butcher’s workshop as medical suite.

It took a power saw and thirty minutes to get the creature out of the armor. Three blades were dulled before they finally cut through. Underneath, the warrior had grey smooth skin, almost like a dolphin’s. Six fingers. Sharp ridges of bone along the forearms. A smell of salt and ozone hung around it.

Venke stood back, close to the door, two armed guards between herself and the examination table. Her attendants, two men and a woman, crowded around the table, arranging the pieces of armor neatly on a trolley.

“Should we open the helmet as well, doctor?” one of the men asked. She hadn’t memorized his name. So many had come and gone, most of them broken by what they saw and had to do under Venke’s supervision. This one had hung on longer than most. Perhaps it was time to learn his name.
“Yes,” Venke replied.

The man felt around the edge of the helmet, fingertips seeking any hidden mechanism. A loud click, followed by a smooth sound of not quite metal on metal, but almost. The snail shell helmet opened up in the middle, sliding back into some sort of neck rest that had been attached to the armor. Saltwater spilled out.

A circular mouth filled with needle teeth dominated its face, like a lamprey. There was something obscene about it, glistening wetly in the harsh lights. Something utterly inhuman, beyond reason.

And it stank. Reeked. Rotten flesh and disease, that’s what Venke smelled from that horrible mouth. One of the attendants turned and was violently ill, doubling over as he vomited. Venke sneered. Weak.

“It’s theorized that within a period of forty to fifty years at the end of the thirteenth and the beginning of the twelfth century BC almost every significant city in the eastern Mediterranean world was destroyed, many of them never to be occupied again.”

Venke paid a lot more attention to the behavior and appearance of the historian delivering the briefing than to the actual content of it. He sounded like he was reading words of the page he hadn’t written himself in an attempt to participate in the masquerade that was the finite game dominating the room. The game of acting like you’ve got your shit together and know what you’re talking about, while hiding the fact that you don’t know shit and are, behind the mask, just a ignorant primate made to be afraid of the dark just like the rest of us.

“It used to be thought that a mysterious so-called ‘Sea People’ invaded the coastal cities of the late Bronze Age and laid waste to them. That explanation has long since fallen into disfavor, with modern theories of general systems collapse holding that societal declines in the face of complex challenges lead to a fragile social structure and eventual collapse. However, given the obvious present day evidence presented to us, we think that…”

He fell silent for a moment, clearly uncomfortable in his own skin. He took a napkin from his pocket and wiped of sweat from his brow.

“We think that the Sea People theory is due for a review… We think this may have happened before, possibly several times, but that the frequency is so low that the last one barely made it into the epoch of recorded history.”

A murmor went through the briefing room. It was occupied with the usual military rabble seated in uncomfortable folding chairs crammed into the space. Officers, mostly older white men, sat with brows furrowed and arms crossed. It was unclear to Venke whether their brows were furrowed in concentration or skepticism, and whether their arms were crossed in defiance or simply in an effort to make minimal body contact with each other.

Venke felt a familiar anger well up in her, pondering the significance of the demographics in the room. She had held a life-long regard for evolution through natural selection as the central organizing principle that not just brings about all the wondrous forms of life about but also matches that life into ecosystems where energy is propagated with efficiency and effectiveness. From an evolutionary viewpoint it made perfect sense to her why this particular room was filled with the stern faces of a group of that certain demographic.

While civilian institutions of democracy had long known and promoted the value of diversity and inclusion, the strength of the selection process at play in deciding who would get to be in a top level emergency briefing like this one left little space for the requisite diversity that this situation demanded. Selection had little to do with those men being the most qualified to make decisions, or their proven superiority in any other regard except one: the cultural factors of this setting had been set in place by old white men, and so it was old white men who were best adapted to this environment. They would be the ones who could get ahead and call the shots mostly because of their subtle advantages in an ecosystem that favored uniformity of thought and action. It had long been known by the Navy that women in fact made much better submariners than men, but fat chance of that ever becoming policy, given that the policy was written by these old grumps.

And now that one-track system was showing its fragility in the face of a rapidly changing wartime ecology. Maybe there was something to be said for the theory general systems collapse as it applies to the Bronze Age Collapse. An army has uniforms and homogenous hierarchies in place because it makes it possible to wrap your too-small-for-comfort primate nervous system around it. But what happens you have an oversimplified control system in place for the sake of being able to wrap your head around it? And especially, what happens when the parameters of the ecosystem changes? How were these uniformed male primates equipped to handle the first adversary in over 3000 years who wasn’t also a group of uniformed male primates? How long before the masquerade of knowing comes to an end?

She focused on her breathing, calming down. This is not a problem to be dealt with inside established boundaries of thinking, even though she considered her view more relevant than the unexamined ones in the room. There was in her mind only one principle that would make sense of this situation. Last night after the autopsy she had picked off her shelf the book that many years earlier she had named as her own personal bible, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, written by another old white man, about an even older white man, one of the greatest. She had found the passage she had returned to time and again.

If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I’d give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. But it is not just a wonderful scientific idea. It is a dangerous idea. My admiration for Darwin’s magnificent idea is unbounded, but I, too, cherish many of the ideas and ideals that it seems to challenge, and want to protect them. … The only good way to do this—the only way that has a chance in the long run—is to cut through the smokescreens and look at the idea as unflinchingly, as dispassionately, as possible.

She could find determination if not solace in that intellectual call to arms. A lot of her more ‘spiritual’ friends from academia viewed evolution as this beautiful process of unfolding lotus flower petals. But that process wasn’t a beautiful process if you were to look into the details. In the details were lamprey needle teeth and the smell of rotten flesh and disease, and sweaty old dinosaurs sitting with their arms crossed waiting for her to come up to the front of the room to make sense of all this to them so they could decide what was the best course of action. As meanwhile the asteroid grew bigger on the night sky.

But there was beauty even in that ugliness. A hidden geometry that she could barely perceive the outlines of.

The lotus flower only blooms in the murkiest of waters.

“Dr. Venke Spielbaum will now present to us her findings from the vivisection she and her team performed on the specimen we captured on June 12th. Doctor?”

She began by describing the armor – not really her department, but her mousy associate in R&D had assured her it would capture the attention of the pigheaded, military crowd, in a way that mere anatomy wouldn’t. Bulldog ears perked up as she briefly outlined the fabric’s application in avionics, portable shielding, and sonic warfare.

“…the material, in fact, tends naturally towards the formation of a conch-like shape, resembling that of experimental sound cannons,”

With that out of the way, and their sleepy minds woken by bloodthirst, she delved into biology: the taut, blubbery skin, the insulating microscopic hairs, the warm/cold-blooded mixed vascular system, unlike other earthly creatures. The hands, their seven webbed fingers, the phlegmy blowhole on their foreheads, the six-lobed brain.

“…and finally, upon analysis of the digestive system, we discovered traces of human flesh in addition to flesh of their own kind, confirming anthropophagous and cannibalistic carnivory. It also contained several fragments of coral, which we believe functioned as a kind of gastrolith, a theory bolstered by the fact that their dental profile is indicated for ripping food, not grinding it.”

Their faces were shock and steel.

There were a few questions as she spoke. Men of means and power asserting themselves, speaking up in front of their peers to show that they listened and understood. It was all hollow questions with easy answers, and nothing that really furthered the discussion. She was waiting for the obvious question, which would come sooner or later, but was surprised by the next.

“Do they have an amygdala, doctor?”

The speaker was a heavyset man, maybe in his early sixties, with broad shoulders and a nose that had been broken too many times. Two stars on his collar.

“I’m sorry,” Venke said. “Did you say amygdala?”
“Do they feel fear, doctor?” the general asked.
“It’s hard to say.”
“Your professional opinion then.”

Venke pulled up the images of the creature’s brain. A 3D image and close ups of specific sections, from the MRI and CT scans. This was by far the most fascinating thing about them. Everything about their external appearance and their internal organs was something you could wrap your head around, by combining knowledge of human anatomy with that of various creatures from the sea. Their brain was another matter.

“In my opinion, yes, they can feel fear, general.” She pointed her laser at a cluster of nuclei in the left and right central lobes of the brin.
“I have not had the time to run thorough simulations, but I believe this is the equivalent of our amygdalas.”
“What is an amygdala?” another general said. Brent this one, Army. Venke had no idea who Amygdala General was.
“There is information in your packets, sir,” Venke replied. The layout of the creature’s brain and the rest of its physiology had been documented in detail and sent out to the meeting attendants the day before. She was not surprised some hadn’t read it.

The room was dim, the reflected variable glow of monitors illuminating the back wall and for a moment it appeared to Venke as refractive light from within a pool of water.

She had worked intently for this moment for two months since that pivotal late night briefing where she had begun to sway the minds of the generals away from their precious doctrines. They had been grueling weeks of 12 hour days and no weekends, but the price in the human sphere was racking up quickly and there was no time to waste. Since first landfall of humanity’s amphibious enemy, raids on coastal settlements had cost the lives of a good two hundred thousand people. Those people weren’t merely casualties. They were protein for the horde of sea people. Devoured. The thought still made Venke sick to her stomach. It had been a long time relatively speaking since mankind had been anything but the top of the food chain, and this state of things was abhorrent to her. So she made that her singular goal, restoring homo sapiens to biological supremacy, her birthright. And tonight was going to turn the tide.

She glared at the screen. Tactical deployments were underway. Tracking and prediction had been the hardest nut to crack. The navies with their sonars had been all but useless until a university team of seismologists camped out on an island in Indonesia had unlocked the secret that the sea people were burrowing under the continental shelf. That in turn had led to the mapping of their network of underground tunnels and traced them back into the abyssal plains at 4000-6000 meters depth where they originated. Or at least so went the theory. It takes more intensive engineering capacity to explore the deep places in the ocean than it takes to explore outer space.

Given that difficulty of probing let alone digging under the bottom of the abyssal plains, a habitat long thought devoid of most life, and combined with the fact that the area of this environment is a good two thirds of the total land area of Earth, it’s not really surprising in retrospect that the Sea People had gone undetected for all of history. Venke wondered if the mysterious timing of their return after three thousand years would be equally unsurprising when looking back. Had someone asked her just a couple of weeks ago, she would not have used the conjunction when but rather if she would be looking back at this moment. But tonight she was full of confidence. Tonight they would receive the next raiding party with the full power of the joint militaries of the surface civilization, and show those crusty shitheads who was the dominant clade on this planet.

A signal resonant with her sentiment comes through the line from a tactical commander on the ground.

“Hope you boys brought your garlic and lemons. Cause we gonna have us some lobster tonight!”