Episode 41 - He that would learn to pray, let him go to this pond

The last few weeks have been awful. I’ve been really anxious waiting for a response from Ben. I haven’t had a decent night of sleep in quite sometime. By now, the note I left over the Loess Hills had to be gone, worn out by rain, wind and possible animals. If he didn’t see the note during the week after my visit to the Hills, my attempt to contact him would’ve been in vain. Daily work around Base Camp and the usual pond patrols have become harder without Ben around. He really made a difference here. Ben was a hard worker and usually picked up the slack from others. I’m crossing my fingers; I sure hope he’s still alive, even if it’s out in the boonies. To make things even worse, Argo3, the mini-sub, had dropped a sample collection tube full of larvae from bottom-dwelling animals, all the way down to the uncharted “depth zone” of the Mulberry Ridge Pond. Since Dr. Johnson and the Professor were working with the larvae samples for over a month, this could only mean one thing: someone had to pick up the larval tube, and it was all up me. Ben was my companion diver and he was gone. No one else had trained to be a diver in this mission. So this morning, after receiving a “go” from Mission Control, the sarge set up a rescue team, divided in two units: Roy and Professor Evgeny to stay on land, Brian and I to be in the water. - It’s too risky! – I complained. - I rather go in alone, than have to watch my back and take care of Brian, who has no experience at all! - I continued. My point was well taken. The sarge ordered Brian to be on standby in the rubber raft while I looked for the tube. We arrived at the southwest corner of the pond around 1100 hours. Brian borrowed Ben’s scuba gear and looked quite uncomfortable. While Roy secured the perimeter, Professor Evgeny set up his monitoring station on top of the Jeep’s hood. It was the first time I was going to use my electronic scuba mask (ESM). With the mask’s miniature LCDs, transducers, optics electronics and RF data transmission, the professor could monitor and record my entire descent to the bottom of the pond. As a precaution, I was also bringing an underwater camera. Roy and Brian managed to set the boat in the water, while I worked out the last details with the Professor. - I believe we are all squared away. Are you ready? – the professor asked me. I put my scuba mask on and headed for the pond’s shore. Brian started the raft's motor. Once in the water, I met Brian for a little talk: - Listen boy, unless you hear something on the radio, don’t jump in the water. I don’t care if you see bubbles or blood. Understand? – I asked him. He looked at me nervously and replied: -Aye, Aye, Sir! - I put my air-powered spear-gun around my back, grabbed the yellow underwater camera from the raft and started my descent. Through speakers set up on each side of the scuba mask, I could hear Professor Evgeny: - All systems check. Do you copy, Harris? – His voice had a thin metallic sound to it. - Yep, I copy loud and clear! Now carry on, over and out! – I replied. I didn’t want to waste any time. The less time I spent in the water, the better. Following a huge rock covered in algae, I finally hit the bottom. My diving watch marked 200 meters (about 656 feet). Using my fins I wondered around while receiving instructions from Professor Evgeny. – There! Over there, by those big boulders! Not too far to my left the green and yellow tube sat undisturbed in the pond’s bed. But something else was by its side. – Professor, do you copy? What in the hell is that? – I asked through the underwater radio. – It’s hard to tell…hummm…It looks like a fresh water eel of some sort. I’m guessing a female by its size. Be careful, adult eels primarily eat fish or crayfish, but will feed upon anything they find. Male eels remain near river mouths or in brackish water, but the females migrate upriver and they can live over 20 years in freshwater. – finished the Professor. Why can’t he give me “just the necessary” information for once? I asked myself. I dropped the camera and swam towards the tube. The eel laid motionless on the gravel bottom. I attempted to grab the vessel, but out of its relaxed position the eel soared in my direction. Its mouth got so close from my face; I swear I smelled its breath. I grabbed the eel by its side while it was still trying to take a bite out of me and punched it in the face a few times. Through the radio in my mask, I could hear the Professor freaking out: - Harris!? What’s going on? Do you copy…respond soldier! Over! – I had no time to reply. Using all the strength of my right hand, I held the eel as far from my body as possible. My spear-gun was too hard to get at that point; I reached for my handy Marine Ka-bar knife instead. If you tried to move your arms really fast under the water, you know how hard it is to get a good swing with a blade. By the time I had the knife jammed into the eel’s head, hours seemed to have passed by. I was afraid that Brian would’ve jumped in the water by then, but he sat on the raft watching what he could not see. When the commotion underwater ended, I finally heard the professor again: - Situation Report! Harris? Is everything ok? – I took a deep breath from my recycled air canister and responded: - Freaking eel went Gung-Ho on me, I’m alright though. Prepare for pick up! Over and out! – I grabbed the Tube and swam as fast as I could to the surface. I could not afford another surprise encounter; neither with a turtle, eel or with any other strange animal who lives in this pond. I passed the collection tube to Brian and headed for the shore where Roy helped me out of the water. Brian held the tube up in the air and the professor acknowledged the retrieval. Back on land, the larvae samples were stored safely inside the Jeep. Professor Evgeny kept reviewing the underwater action shots in his computer. – I would love to put my hands in that eel! – the professor kept saying. I shrugged. I got rid of my diving gear and leaned against the Jeep. - What happened down there, John? - Roy asked me curiously. To which I replied: - The pond has a life of its own, man. It’s like a giant test tube; you just don’t know what other crazy things are going to pop out of there. - At least I have no cuts.

by Corporal John Harris, July 06, 2006