James pulls himself up, out of the heat and over the rock, and removes his fire suit. “I’ll be damned,” he says, slowly, repeatedly.
“This surprises you?” Antonio asks. Around him small clouds of sulphur, hot and wispy, float past. The stink is terrible.
“I guess it does,” says James. He looks back down into the pit he’s just climbed out of.
Antonio shrugs his shoulder, a typical gesture for so many Italians, as if to ask, what did you expect? Instead, he maintains a respectful silence. Senior academics, he long ago learnt, don’t like to be corrected directly. Especially not those who edit the journals in which one has to ultimately seek publication, and on which your own career depends.
Slowly, respectfully, he says, “It’s just a predictable process of evolution, I guess.” He gestures down into the crater below. “But I have a feeling: please don’t stand so close to the big pools, the deep ones.”
The Englishman looks down at the lava flow again. This is not a sudden, explosive rupture; rather a quiet, fiery seeping wound from the side of the mountain. “Did I really see what, you know… I thought I did?” he asks his colleague.
The Italian nods. “Shouldn’t surprise you, really. Didn’t we always know about … scusi, how do you say in Inglese? – extreme-ohs.”
“Extremophiles,” James corrects him. “Bacterium and other little critters in places we once thought life couldn’t exist. Radioactive sites. Toxic chemical environments. Volcanic vents. But still … ” he trails off in confusion. Sometimes an Oxbridge education will get you only so far.
The earth trembles briefly once more, a gentle nudge from below. Another small rivulet of lava breaks through the ground, this time just near their feet. Protected in their high-insulation outfits, they’re not worried that it might hurt them. Antonio turns and squints at the lava flow, gestures James over.
For a second time, James can see the small figures in the oozing red. Slivers of life, against the odds. He watches as first one, then another, and finally a whole swarm of the little black fingerlings move through the lava. Like a school of fish, they travel in a tight pack, dozens of them, stopping abruptly to nibble at some of those bacterium, turning suddenly to swim briefly back upstream for a while, then returning and milling around.
“Now you know what I wanted to show you,” says Antonio, “and why you wouldn’t believe my paper if you hadn’t seen it yourself.”
James nods. “First you get the little pieces of life, like bacteria. And eventually something emerges that feeds on it.”
Antonio nods his head. “Exactly. It is a predictable process of evolution, is it not?”
He continues. “For many years I hear these stories, from the people of these islands, but don’t believe them. And then I see for myself, and I begin to research this, describe it.”
And of course, reflects Antonio, there would be no better place, no more symbolically significant one, than here. He’s standing looking out onto the Aeolian islands, on the rim of the so-called gran cratere of Vulcano, the very first of all volcanoes, the one from which all others are named, as it has come back to life.
The side of the mountain shakes again, and more lava rivulets begin to open up around them. Now that he knows what he’s looking for, James realises that almost all of them are teeming with their own lava fish. What a publication this will make, he realises. Something to secure both of their careers, forever.
He wanders a little further along the flank of the mountain, finds another, much larger, deeper magma pool. At the surface, he can now see hundreds of these critters, swimming together in a tight, massive bait ball.
“Come, we should go,” says Antonio. “And I really don’t think you should stand over the big lava pools.”
James doesn’t hear him. He’s still standing there, gazing at the swirling school of lava fish, thinking of their discovery, when a much bigger darker shape emerges. It circles for the briefest of moments, as if sizing up its opportunities, then leaps up out of the lava and pulls him in. There’s no time for James to cry out, just a splash.
Antonio watches as the lava shark prowls briefly through the molten red liquid with its victim, then swims off, back into the boiling underground heart of Vulcano.
He sighs. James should have seen that bigger predator coming. After all, it too is just a part of the predictable process of evolution.
Michael T Schaper is currently based in Australia’s “bush capital,” Canberra, where he spends a lot of time fruitlessly looking for some surf. He is also an adjunct professor with Curtin University of Technology in Western Australia, and a keen reader of flash fiction in all its many forms.