The cauldron roiled.
Born deep below, where ancient, mineral-laden water met the molten bloodstream of the world’s mantle, the plume rose through a labyrinth of time-tempered fissures until, at last, it met the frigid sea. It erupted from its mafic prison like the great belching smokestack of some infernal machine. A black plume pouring from a crack in the earth. It carried with it the elemental legacy of a planet in motion—gold and silver, iron, copper, nickel—and other, more exotic specimens—manganese, neodymium, cobalt.
The sea would not accept these gifts. In the cold, in the dark, in the abyssal pressure, these heavy elements fell from the plume, to be deposited on the ever-growing chimney. As the plume rolled on, a mountain grew around it, a mountain of sulfide, a mountain of ore.
Or maybe it began here, in this black, roiling abyss, far from light. Maybe the rest followed.
It’s hard to know, in the vast blackness, who came first. The limpets, tiny and frail that clung to the newly-risen rocks, scrapping the bacterial mats for food. The bacteria certainly came early. They escaped from the plume itself, borne up through the earth, and settled on the seafloor, on the warm rocky crevices, or within the gills of fist-sized snails. There were the squat lobsters, scavengers, carving out whatever they could in this dark, barren world. Or the shrimp, more noble than their scavenging kin, who blindly ate from the plume itself. Maybe it was the mussels, worm-filled and satiated, that drank the effluent that escaped from lesser cracks in the earth, cooler, but no less rich.
The worms. Oh the worms! They emerged from their tubes, their burrows, the bodies of their hapless hosts. They numbered in the thousands, the millions, the billions. More than could ever be counted. They drank the plume, or ate from their own captive bacteria, who, in turn, drank the plume. They hid in cracks so hot that lesser life would blister and die. They dug into the soft, muddy seafloor, waiting for prey or sticking their peculiar roots into the underworld, drawing life up from the long dead. If there ever were a god of the deep, he would wear a crown of worms, and it would shimmer like the radiant scales of his subjects, who crawled upon the sulfurous chimney.
But gods pass. If there were a king and queen to sit upon this hydrothermal throne, it would be the snails. There was the black one, Ifremeria (for creatures of the abyss rarely have common names), with a hard, flakey shell, as dark as the plume. In another age it had cast out its guts, forgoing the comfort of consumption. It has no mouth, no anus, no stomach. Within its shell it carried the bacteria which deliver its sustenance directly into its self. And there was the white one, Alviniconcha (having no common names of their own, we claimed the right to name them for our submarines, as if our discovery was their only identity), with a shell of delicate hairs caressing the sea. They dwelled together, rarely one without the other, at the very lip of the chimney, where the heat of the plume was greatest, Alviniconcha, the risk taker, at the very edge of inferno, Ifremeria, the cautious one, standing back.
They danced in the darkness, forever, yin and yang, the balance of the deep.
The darkness ended.
Light flooded the abyssal world. Those with eyes were blinded. Those who could flee, fled. The shrimp dissipated. The squat lobsters, cowards, shot off with a backwards thrust of their tails. The worms retreated into their holes, their tubes, their burrows. The snails could not flee. Theirs was a life of stillness. They lacked the strength. They stood their ground.
The beast of light roared. In a world of jagged rocks and curving bodies, it was a boxy, unworldly monster. The sea was not its home.
A massive arm of titanium and hydraulic sinew reached out and down, down into the belly that slowly, angrily extended out from the monstrous frame. It grasped, in its two fingered claw, a scoop of steel, black, marked in luminous paint with the number IV. The beast plunged the scoop into the mass of snails and worms and shrimp and mussels and squat lobsters and limpets and raked across the rock, shoveling them into the blackened vessel. Its hideous task complete, it dropped its prey into its belly, which retracted inwards, trapping its victims within the cantankerous frame.
The beast was not done.
It drew from its quiver a lance, long and stiff and steel.
It hesitated, then plunged the lance into the plume, driving it down into the fissure. The arm crushed stone and snail alike as it ground into the vent driving the lance ever deeper. Stabbing the heart of the deep.
The pause could have been forever.
The sea held its breath.
And then, as if in a rage, it ripped the lance out, sideways, destroying what was left of the chimney, shattering the vent.
It settled on the seafloor and examined the fused and melted lance. With a shudder, it slid the lance back into its holster.
It had one last, sinister task to complete. With naked claw, it reached down and plucked a single white snail from the seafloor. Perhaps to get a better look. Perhaps to set it back in the safety of the still-roiling plume. But the beast did not understand the paper-thin shell, and could not know the strength of its claw. The snail was crushed between the titanium pincers, its entrails spread across the seafloor.
The beast rose. As quickly as it arrived, it was gone.
Death followed in its wake.
The snails, cast from their throne, lay scattered in the mud. They could not climb back up the broken chimney. They didn’t have that strength. They lived their lives at the top, never the bottom. Monarchs cast out of their kingdom, fallen. Ifremeria, the black snail, was stronger, harder. The survivors banded together and, in one great final prayer to their own future, bred. They poured their offspring into the sea, set them adrift to find a new kingdom to colonize. Alviniconcha, the white snail, was weaker. They had no such method of last resort. Lying on the seafloor, far from hope, far from food, they starved. They died.
Their empty shells would be buried by a season of raining detritus. In a few months there would be no evidence that anything but mud and darkness has stood there.
The sea was quiet.
The abyss, still.
I hope you enjoyed this. Check back next Sunday for the next installment!
And, in case you're wondering, yes, that is a tattoo of Alviniconcha and Ifremeria.