By THOMAS STEVENSON.
CHAPTER ONE: WHAT’S UNDER ROCK BOTTOM?
Ah, the sea. What a wondrous place. It is home to an untold variety of life, yet is so vast that most of it seems empty.
It is also incredibly old. Older than the internet, older even than humanity. The sea has outlived dinosaurs and felt the Earth itself change. But it’s always hosted an amazing array of life. Once upon a time, the critters were young and bizarre to our eyes. However, their stories were no less compelling than those of today.
Back in a time we call the Devonian, there was a particular inhabitant of that sea called Steve.
Steve was a trilobite. To the untrained human he would have looked like a giant slater, or some other bug you’d find crawling around in a log. To the trained human, he would have looked much the same. He wore a flattish suit of segmented armour, as did all trilobites. Against the reef on which he lived, it had a dark keratinous sheen, punctuated by blue racing stripes along his thorax.
On a typical morning he would wake up, wipe the algae away with his feelers, then scuttle off to find his friend Alan. Together, Alan and Steve were the kings of the reef. They were invincible lords of the trilobites, or so they liked to think. Really they were young and rascally, just two kids with a bit too much energy. They’d tussle in the coral, chase lady bugs around, toss pebbles at the placoderms and squabble with shark pups.
When Steve crossed the reddish rugose coral to reach Alan’s den, he was greeted with an almighty cry of, “STEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEVE!”
That was the alarm call for the rest of the community, the sign that the Devonian sun had risen. Time for the antics of the day to begin.
“Alan!” said Steve, “How are things?”
“Wet and salty, same as always. I’d like something to eat apart from sea water, though.”
“Wanna go and visit the brachiopods?”
“Sure!” Alan fully emerged from his hidey-hole, revealing the tartan patterning on his shell. He grinned at Steve with his concealed mouth and they set off across the reef. As the rest of its residents stirred into non-sleep, the ocean itself suddenly came to life.
The rays of the tropical sun fell first on the backs of fish. Not just the little fellows you’d see in an aquarium, but early sharks as well, with short snouts and anvil-shaped fins. There were also the placoderms, thick-skulled chaps with armour that fitted over their faces. All these folks swam overhead and minded their own business, for which many of them were already late.
Coming upon a cluster of pale pebbles, Steve and Alan giggled and launched them into the shoal above. There was a pained squeak and a disapproving look from a nearby flatworm. They continued scuttling to the brachiopod fields, laughing all the way.
“Old Beatrice must be getting up about now,” said Steve.
“There she is now!” Alan replied. He pointed with his feelers, indicating the brine-worn trilobite peeking out of her coral home.
“I hope you boys will behave yourselves today,” said Beatrice in her normal shrill tone. “We could all do with some peace and quiet for a change!”
“You say that every day, Beatrice.”
“Aye… well, just keep me out of it then.”
“Okay!” Steve waved Beatrice goodbye, while Alan waved her a waiver and received a sigh of disgust in return. Once again the duo resumed their march into the sunrise.
As the rainbow shades of the reef passed below their feet, cycling through vivid red, yellow, green and purple, the brachiopod fields came into view. They were located on a low shelf that extended out into the open ocean. Few trilobites dared to loiter here, because hungry fish could swoop in without warning, or at very short notice.
Brachiopods were mostly timid creatures, living their lives inside burrows between the coral heads. Not that they had much choice; each one was fixed in its burrow by a slimy arm. If you were lucky, you might have been able to attract one to the surface and see its smooth, oval shell. That was the game of Alan and Steve, for nothing was more amusing than teasing the less shy brachiopods.
Alan stepped onto the flat field and started tapping his feelers around the entrance to a burrow. “Helloooooooooo, anyone home?”
“Who wants to come out and play?” Steve asked as he ran circles around another burrow.
“Come on Shellface, we have a present for you!”
“I don’t think they’re awake yet, Alan. You need to be louder.” One of Steve’s legs was dangling inside a burrow when he felt a sharp pinch upon it. “Ouchies!”
Underneath him was a brachiopod, very much awake and annoyed. Its shell had snapped shut on Steve’s appendage, but released it so the brachiopod could talk. “Begone, younglings. There is no place for you here!”
“We weren’t looking to rent, just browsing,” said Alan. “What a fine selection of muddy tubes you have here!”
“Your type I know all too well. I have no fear of trilobites! So I say unto you, BEGONE!”
Steve and Alan were thrilled at the prospect of a brave brachiopod to bully. They tried to peer inside his greenish shell, but it snapped shut and sat there, grumbling at them. Perfect material for antagonisation.
“What’s it like living in rock bottom, grandpa?”
“Rock bottom? I know not what you mean. These fields were paradise, until you unconvivial scritch-scratchers appeared!”
“Big words for a slime-shell, eh Steve?”
“We live underneath, not by choice, but because only under the reef can we find solitude.”
“Right… so what’s under rock bottom?” asked Steve. “Apart from more slime, I mean.”
Finally the brachiopod seemed to have had enough. His shell slid back into the hole, out of sight. For a moment the trilobites sat there, sniggering. Then they blinked their unmoving eyes as they realised the fields had fallen silent. Not the slightest snore came from the brachiopods.
“Disappointing.” Alan shook his cephalon, “How about we just find something to eat? I’m so hungry I could-”
“Hey, look! What’s that?” Steve pointed excitedly with his antenna.
“It’s your antenna,” Alan smirked.
“No, genius. That thing in the ocean. Is that a fish?”
Ah yes, what a fish! What had caught Steve’s attention was the shadowed outline of a colossal creature, drifting through the open ocean. It was too far away to make out any detail, but even so it evoked sinister feelings. Steve and Alan had never met a fish too big to swim in the reef – and they didn’t want to.
After a minute, the radiant shadow was lost in the deep ocean. Still the brachiopods were quiet, so Steve and Alan headed off to the nearest café they hadn’t been blacklisted from. They didn’t get far before a new sensation made itself felt. A tremor began to shake the ground underfoot. It was as if the coral itself were growling with hunger.
“That hungry, eh Alan?”
“Actually, I… I think we should move,” Alan said. His normally chirpy voice had taken on a fearful tone, most uncharacteristic of the Tartan Trilobite. There was something equally troubling about the way his antennae knotted themselves and his gills flapped like a frightened starfish.
“What is wrong? And what is making that shaking?”
“Look!” Alan pointed to the top of the coral cliff, the very shallowest part of their home reef.
Steve saw something fuzzy all around the edge of the cliff, something brown and flowing. It poured down onto the reef in front of them, sending up a storm of muddy water. It was a massive mudslide and it was coming straight for them!
“I wish I could swim,” said Steve.
“Right idea, wrong species. Come on!”
But it was too late. In the final seconds before impact, they only had time to struggle a few paces with their antennae locked together. A sudden wave of mud and slime tore Alan out of Steve’s grip.
Steve took a quick gulp of water and clung to the coral, but he wasn’t strong enough. There came the sensation of falling, then a sharp pain in his thorax. Then the mad rush of brown faded slowly to black.