Hic sunt dracones

When a new frontier arises men as the one I see now sitting opposite to me arise too. These men have existed since the beginning of time, because since the beginning of time there have always been new frontiers arising. These men might first be engendered by their mothers, but are eventually molded by mountains, tundras, deserts, seas and steppes. Those are men who live halfway between reality and myth, men who, perhaps without any special grace, culture or talent, become almost philosophers, almost poets, the raw material for bards, minstrels and storytellers. Men that, without being really happy or cheerful, I like them to exist, I like to see them swarming around me, because they give life a necessary, immortal magic, the same that has made all these kids who have gathered around me, as enthralled and fascinated as I am, listen in full silence his incredible and fascinating stories.

That man speaking in front of me comes from the confines of the world, the boundaries of all we known, and it shows. It shows because new frontiers always give people magic, they give them courage, curiosity, depth, illusion, gravity, they make you be bigger and deeper, grow and rise, and inspire others. It is human nature to face challenges, to overcome boundaries, to always go further, to explore and conquer the infinite, and who does it acquires in the process, as happened to this man, an extraordinary and unmistakable aura and magnetism.

This is precisely why I’m here now, because of the frontiers. Like him, and like the audience of child and adults silently gathered in this small room located more than 2,000 meters depth. We are in the middle of the Atlantic Ridge, particularly in a small, dark bar, so to say, within the recreational and livability area of the small colony of New Natal, one of the eighty-seven submarine bases built by Nova Atlantis, the micro-nation founded over ten years ago in the southern half of the Atlantic Ocean. I’m here, I say, by the same reason he is, by the issue of the new frontiers, because the ocean, along with the space, is nowadays the new frontier for mankind.

Humans seemed to take a long time to realize that, with one of their feet already out of the planet, they knew almost nothing about what the two thirds of their own world could still offer. With a permanently inhabited base and dozens of colonies settled on the moon engaged in mining operation for almost twenty years, dozens of robotic installations rising across the length and breadth of Mars in order to lay the foundations of an imminent colonization and terraforming, and dozens of sounding lines daily patrolling and digging the surface of the Galilean moon Europe, man seemed to come up quite late with the idea of exploring, colonizing and exploiting his own oceans, his backyard. But in the end he did, later, but he did.

There were reasons more than enough: overpopulation in the mainland, mining, farm, marine agriculture and energy, geothermal energy, fossil fuel extraction… and in the beginning of the space age reasons multiplied due to the many and varied fields in which aerospace and submarine technologies intersect: ship design and operation, creation of viable human habitats in the midst of hostile environments, vacuum and depressurization technologies, varied synergies … because the truth is that space and ocean are sometimes very similar.

In my case, and to be honest, it’s also about something similar but more prosaic, because even if I started talking about high matters, like boundaries, exploration and human spirit, the truth is that the prime reason for my presence here, however, is very little or nothing fancy, because it is due to the mere fact that here is where I earn my daily bread. It is not uncommon, however, because, after all, is not only the hunger for adventure that drives men to conquer and colonize new worlds, but also the hunger itself, the simple need to earn a living. And Nova Atlantis pays well and needs people, always, all kinds of people. It needed people when its construction began two decades ago, first as an artificial floating island-city rising thanks to an intricate mix of private investors and non-profit and public funds coming from various countries and transnational organizations. And it continued to require more when, very recently, it took advantage of an existing legal loophole and ended self-proclaiming itself an independent nation of around half-a-million inhabitants.

Not that Nova Atlantis was the only one of its kind. The already mentioned legal loophole regarding seas jurisdiction has led to the existence of numerous rarities during the last century, some of them short-lived and others that still exist, as the tiny artificial island of Sealand, the Republic of Rose Island, the Republic of Minerva atoll or the REM island. Indeed, during the last ten years three other micro-nations very similar to Nova Atlantis have already been founded, one in the middle of the eastern Pacific Ridge in front of Peru; another in Polynesia, taking advantage of some uninhabited atolls; and one more in the conjunction between the Central and the southwest Indian Ridges, near Madagascar. Moreover, many countries have established hundreds of undersea colonies, bases, mobile settlements and floating cities on their territorial waters. Japan has already one-twentieth of its population living on island-cities artificially built on the sea surface, and the number of people working and temporarily inhabiting in the Chinese and American submarine exploitations is twice in each case the current total population of Nova Atlantis, even when the latter had doubled since the country’s independence.

But this new country is different. Not only because it is he oldest, largest or best paying out of all those having the seas as their only territory. It is, above all, that it is in its nature, in its DNA, that charm of being a pioneer and free that attracts me so badly. Here everyone is welcome, no questions or demands are ever made, everybody is delighted when new people come, they need the foreigners, and there are almost no buts or obstacles for them. It is a multicultural, multiracial, multi-religious and cosmopolitan society, open minded and liberal, full of interesting and brilliant people arrived from everywhere. You can see how it grows and is built everyday, something without precedents, without paragon. Things really move around here, they really do, not as on the mainland, and they do so mainly because Nova Atlantis carries implicitly that frontier character in its nature, because it exists by and for the conquest and exploration of the oceans.

Certainly, I could have stayed on the mainland. There I could make a living in another way, perhaps worse, although surely easier, without that many risks and inconveniences. Nothing about living in a constant darkness, longing for a brief vision of the sky, the fields or the mountains, nothing of countless depressurization cameras and emergency immersion suits, omnipresent security measures, loss of appetite, claustrophobia, ills arising from the lack of light and the poor visibility, disorientation, loss of the sense of time, insomnia… But nothing about adventure, novelty, exploration, epic … or the good salary I earn, or the interesting and quirky people I know.

The truth is that they expect you to finish somehow crazy when submerged for a long time, and no one will deny you an extraordinary but justifiable permission to the surface, to see the sky and the sun again. You go up there for a few days, to the platform, and if the surface structure of Nova Atlantis is not enough for you, despite having nothing to envy to any other large city with parks and gardens and a high quality of life, then you take some generous vacation nobody will really deny you too and you can return for a while to your home country or wherever you want to go, to the mainland, for a walk on the countryside, for some trekking on the mountains, or for whatever the hell you please, even for the beach or snorkeling if you wish and if you had not enough ration of sea. And then you come back again.

However, and as much as you could disconnect from time to time, inevitably you will have to spend many hours, days, weeks and even months down here. Some colonies are authentic underwater cities, such as Nova Monrovia, a base where more than 50,000 people currently live and work, and where you can find almost everything: entertainment, privacy, seclusion, vices… even a huge park with trees, freshwater ponds, a very convincing simulated sky and even real birds flying around. But, despite that in such huge environments one can somehow forget where he really is and escape, the truth is that facilities like that one are an exception. In smaller stations, such as this where I am right now, quite tiny bases especially if they are under construction, as well as during the frequent underwater journeys that have to be made from one place to another either through railway underwater tunnels, the bathyscaphes or the large submarine vessels, here one comes face to face with the emptiness of the deep ocean, the blackness of the twilight zone, the vastness of the deep seabed and the creepy majesty of the steep mountains of the ridges.

Facing this world, half fantasy-half horror, is what makes men like the one I have now before me arise. Because here, if you don’t like what you see, you can not simply run and escape, you have to stay, you have to face it, and that has consequences. As I said it’s not unusual at all to end up, sooner or later, somewhat nuts. I myself have seen people collapse in here, or develop strange and bizarre behaviors. Even I’ve noticed myself, sometimes, rare and listless, even somewhat neurotic, especially after my longest stays.

So, about the man I have in front of me it can not really be said he is crazy, not in justice, not if you know how this is, if you know how life is down here. In fact, his behavior, although fascinating, I think is up to normal, or at least understandable. And if he was crazy, it should be clarified he suffered from a very peculiar madness, the same madness, if it was such, that afflicted those old sea men on the surface, those sullen, sunburn, wrinkled and grim faced men, deeply superstitious, who used to sat in the taverns in front of a glass of rum, in a dark corner, and started telling stories, gossips and legends of all kinds, stories which, although always fanciful, often hid some kind of truth inside. The fact is that no one could question them about what they said with absolute authority, because these men had crossed the human frontier that was then the seas, had sailed places that no one else had sailed before, and there was not, therefore, any way to contrast what they said. Therein lay the magic and charm of their stories, and that is basically what this man is doing right now, a sea-dog telling stories about places nobody knows, stories that no one could determine, for sure, how much truth and how much fantasy they have. Because this man, this modern submarine sea-dog, is an extreme depths carrier and, unlike most people down here, he has gone into the depths of the ridge, into the endless canyons where the magma constantly creates new portions of earth crust, the place where life on earth was initially born. This man has gone deeper than almost anyone else in this world, he has been as close to the core of our planet as anybody could ever be, and there he has seen things… there he has seen dragons.

It is normal for people to see things down here. Through the portholes, the hatches and the peepholes of reinforced glass, from the facilities and the vehicles, one can see, or rather, glimpse, in the dim and diffuse light of the bulbs, an alien world, absolutely disturbing and overpowering. A world of dark unfathomable where, most of the time, lights are dissolved in darkness, melt in blackness, lost in its black and ominous emptiness, lost in its immensity, without reflecting anything, without showing anything, simply dying in the shadows some meters away from where you are.

However, when something can be seen it becomes much more disturbing if possible. When something can be seen you see floating, occasionally, the horribly fabulous denizens of the depths: Hundreds of tiny copepods and shrimp hovering in front of the spotlights, as mosquitoes do in summer in the headlights of a car. Transparent or flashy red electric amphipods meet with beroes, squids and colorless and translucent fish that show perfectly what it is stored inside their bodies. Jellyfishes tend sticky networks tens of meters long floating adrift in the gloomy nothing. Cilia and tentacles are seen here and there, always moving while deploying incredible shows of color. Bio-luminescent blue lightning storms in the distance caused by the antennas of fishermen fish and squids. And sometimes grotesque and fierce beings, frightening, cruel, creatures with huge teeth, with big mouths and countless thorns everywhere, horrific ogres wandering lonely in total darkness, in search of their preys. Ghosts and monsters. Nightmares spawns.

he picture is not much better on the continental shelf and the abyssal plains. Even if there is a floor, and you don’t have the feeling of floating in a black void filled with swimming ravings, what is offered in sight here is endless expanses of barren rock and sand where, from time to time, you can see things twisting, such as urchins, octopus, sea cucumbers, starfish, dancing worms, rat fish and coral hunters, occasionally lampreys and scavenger sharks.

But the pits and chasms of the rings are the most amazing thing ever seen, and also the most distressing. As you float above the continental platform you start to notice first that the land rises gradually, initially in soft waves, then in hills and rugged mountains, then in authentic mountain ranges, gigantic peaks that rise and fall and rise and fall again, always more abrupt and violent, until you pass over the top, the highest point, at which peak, instead of a peak, instead of a summit, instead of the highest mountain, suddenly the rift opens, and everything becomes a terrible, black and vertiginous abyss, an endless, bottomless valley, a colossal cut, a dark hole, a never ending pit of sharp and serrated edges, an infinite jaw of hard and irregular contours.

Actually, I can not even imagine the feeling of vertigo and despair that descending into one of those gigantic nightmare maws may produce, into one of those huge throbbing wounds open and waiting to swallow the entire world. I do not know how it is to be down thousands of kilometers into the black, into the absolute nothingness, falling towards the center of the earth, falling into the tar pit of the abyss, but maybe someday I will also have to, because there is something down there, even if oddly, and that is why men like the one I have in front of me go down there, because you have to ship goods and collect other goods, because humans have established their best and most productive geothermal power stations down there, and because scientists are obsessed with exploring those environments, habitats that defy logic and revolutionize our evolution theories almost every month.

And this man, as he is saying, saw dragons down there. And it could be. If the world is strange at higher altitudes, in the depths, down there, in the ridge, is simply inconceivable: sulfur volcanic vents, polychaete worms surviving at 80 degrees, mussels, fish and albino crabs, shrimps, tube worms, masses of water of different densities separated from each other, large lakes of high salt concentration waters waving within the ocean itself, springs of methane and hydrogen sulfide surrounded by millions of alien and bizarre creatures… and barely nothing has been explored yet of these unimaginable worlds where continuously more new species and extraordinary ecosystems are discovered.

And that is why this man in front of me is saying he saw dragons, and that is why the ones who are listening, like I do, do it with avidity and astonishment. Because it could well be true, even if what he is saying is not. One can expect almost anything arising from those unfathomable depths. Recently an extraordinary jellyfish was discovered, ten meters in diameter and nearly forty in length, carrying a thin net among its jelly which fixed with its tentacles on the rocks, like a spiderweb, in order to hunt its preys while they were moving adrift on the current. And not long ago a thirty-meters squid was glimpsed performing impressive color displays in the shadows.

‘Hic sunt dracones’ was written in some medieval maps in those areas still unexplored or unknown to indicate that no one knew what laid beyond, and that a traveler might encounter there almost anything, even dragons. Why not? The truth is that, in the past, they were never found, excepting those from Komodo, but why could not it be that, finally, they had been found, with the only exception of having been living some thousands meters below the waves? This man claims to have met them. He calls them so, dragons.

Perhaps this description does not end up being but a rarity, a curiosity among many, a legend, a naive and innocent example of men’s inexhaustible and prolific imagination when feeding by curiosity towards the unknown. But, it may also be the very first testimony of an amazing discovery. Just in case, I pick it up here, and I leave proof of how, surrounded by two children of ten trying to pretend bravery, a scary girl of seven, another one spirited of six, and a toddler of four, plus four adult men, probably their parents, middle-aged people of tired and humble appearance, with blue work overalls and dreamer faces, as I said before I refer how this strange man, already in his fifties, tough, wiry, bearded complexion, with eyes that can see beyond the walls, is telling the story that allegedly happened to him around one month ago, during one of his trips to the power station B-54.

I tell you then what he says, that while he was descending hundreds of meters down with its robust transport, with its lights in full power in order to avoid incidents, while turning a steep rock it suddenly shined its lights on a formidable creature never seen before: A lengthened being, he says, about fifteen meters long, similar in its forms to a huge snake, graceful, harmonious in its movements, quick reflexes and sharp turns and twists, a long thin tail that slid winding while swimming. Its head, fearsome but elegant, was wide and flat, and it was armed with a large mouth full of sharp teeth similar to the ones the carnivorous abyssal fish has. On that face, located forward, two huge eyes, black as tar. From its head to the end of its tail, extending along its back, an endless crest of sharp spines. On the sides of its body, on two strange sharp appendages emerging from its head, and in the middle of its back, in two large triangular plates, shined hundreds of bio-luminescent sheets, dots, lines and curves of intricate designs an intense blue color. And, like the wings of mythological dragons, that creature had, says the man, two huge fins, thin but sturdy, finished as a stinger, with which the animal propelled itself through the water at high speed.

The man, after a brief dramatic pause, and using a tone of serious and concerned voice oozing mystery, says that he stopped immediately the propellers of his machine to better behold at that creepy and awesome creature. And says that it saw him, it saw his vehicle, it saw its lights, and deliberately approached him, agile but cautiously. He tells how it approached the glass cabin, how it looked through it with its large dark eyes, cold and malevolently, how it opened its fearsome jaws for a second, showing a wide and fearful mouth, and how it swam around for a couple of endless minutes. And he tells how, after some time, it turned and left, pushing with its powerful wings and its long slender tail, and that far away from him, when it was barely in sight and he could just glimpse the flash of its bio-luminescent plates in the total darkness of the ridge, it met with three more creatures, the same amazing as it was, and all of them disappeared swimming together in that huge chasm, until they vanished again among the stony shadows of the abyss.

That is what this exotic man repeats again and again, sometimes focusing on the creature’s incredible shape, others on how terribly dark it was the chasm, others in how deep and frightening its eyes were and, far from judging him, I limit myself to pick it up here, in writing, just in case, and to affirm only that even if it was not true what he says, it would be so great yet that at least deserves to be written. The kids around me are fascinated and awed, but not less than us adults. Probably everyone will dream of dragons tonight.
(Lee el relato en Español aquí)

One response to “Hic sunt dracones

  1. Pingback: Hic Sunt Dracones | marcosmarconius·

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