The Tomb of the Builders


The prospect of discovering a shipwreck containing riches beyond our comprehension was what drew us to scuba diving in the first place. Needless to say, we were disappointed pretty quickly. The likelihood of discovering a wrecked ship is infinitesimal, let alone a wrecked ship containing treasure. To make matters worse, even if we did discover such a thing, we’d be forced to return everything we’d recover to the ship’s country of origin. Maritime law or something.

My friends and I still liked to talk about it, though. We’d fantasize about it whenever we’d go out on Tom’s fishing boat.

Tom’s loaded. He made an obscene amount of money when he sold his Apple stock last year, having purchased tens of thousands of shares back when the stock was less than a buck and unloading it less than a percentage off its all-time high. This means his fishing boat is just ridiculous. Not only is his boat incredible, but the toys he has onboard are even more lavish.

Of all of us, Tom’s the most obsessed with finding a Spanish galleon or equally gold-stuffed vessel. The sonar and underwater scanning systems he has onboard cost almost as much as the boat itself. It’s amazing how clear and precise they are; we can see fish swimming under us with incredible resolution – sometimes we’re even able to make out their species. He came right out and told us he got the systems so he could find a shipwreck someday.

Whenever we’d get bored fishing, we’d dive off the boat every so often to keep in practice, but nowhere near the bottom. The deepest any of us had ever gone was a little over 100 feet. Where we fish off the coast of South Carolina, the water is over a mile deep – so a hundred or so feet isn’t making much of a dent. Still, we have fun doing it, although we didn’t really know how we’d explore a shipwreck if we found one, considering it would be so far out of our diving range.

While we’re out on the boat, Tom’s cousin, Guy, when he isn’t practically jerking off over the fantasies about what he’d do with his share of the riches he’s certain we’d find someday, likes to regale us with stories about underwater cities and terrible Elder Gods who’ll come to the surface someday and enslave humanity. I asked him if he was a Lovecraft fan, and all he said was, “what do you think?”

Guy’s a writer. Not a particularly good one, either. Worse still, he never shuts up about the ideas he has. We’d been heading east in the boat for an hour, getting into progressively-deeper water, and Guy kept talking about a character he’d dreamed of called “Neptara” who lived at the top of a mountain underwater. At the end of his story, he’d reveal that Neptara is the cause of all shipwrecks, as he’s able to move his mountain at will and place it in the path of any ship unfortunate enough to incur his wrath.

On this most recent trip, since I was a few beers in and possessing less of a filter than I would’ve had otherwise, I asked if Neptara’s only purpose was to cause underwater car accidents. Guy scowled at me, then replied, “it was Neptara who built all the mountains,” stressing the word “all” with obnoxious grandiosity. I was thankful my sunglasses hid the truly exceptional eye roll I performed.

After another hour of travel, we were coming up on the fishing spot Tom had picked out. We’d be there in 20 minutes. From his perch at the boat’s controls, we heard Tom yell “holy fuck” and he turned the boat so hard Guy and I fell out of our chairs.

I dusted myself off as Guy groaned and I headed up to where Tom was so I could pour a beer on him. As I was coming up the stairs, though, he grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me inside. He just said, “look look look” with wild enthusiasm in his voice and his eyes. He was pointing at one of the many screens on the dashboard or whatever it’s called on a boat.

On screen, I saw a topographical readout of the area right below us. In the corner was a depth gauge which read 4322 feet. Tom moved the boat forward for a minute. The depth gauge started to change rapidly: 4010 feet. 2474 feet. 877 feet. 245 feet. 68 feet. When Tom cut the engines, the gauge read 61 feet. The topographical readout showed a small boat in the center, representing us, and a light blue circle which turned darker and redder. We were floating above a mountain under the Atlantic ocean. “Neptara,” I thought, and immediately felt annoyed that Guy was going to have an opportunity to expound on his awful story.

Guy was walking up the steps, clutching his shoulder and swearing at his cousin. I glanced at him. The shoulder was jutting forward at a weird angle. It was obviously dislocated. I felt frustrated; that probably meant we’d have to go home without casting a single line. When Guy saw the screens, though, it looked like he’d forgotten completely about his injury.

“You know what that looks like?!,” he crowed.

“Yeah, yeah,” I muttered.

Tom hadn’t said anything. He was fiddling with the sonar. When he finally spoke, his tone was one of amazement.

“Check this out,” he whispered. We huddled around the display.

At the top of the mountain, clear as day, was an image of a ship.

“No fucking way,” Guy and I said in unison.

“We’ll come back tomorrow,” Tom announced. “We’ll head back now and get Guy’s shoulder fixed. I’ll mark the location. Christ, it’s shallow enough for us to dive.”

Guy, to his credit, said, “no way. You guys go check it out and I’ll wait up here. I’m not going to miss this shit.” Tears were welling up in his eyes and I knew his shoulder must’ve hurt like hell. I felt bad for him, but I knew after he’d been talking about finding a sunken treasure for so long, there’s no way he would’ve wanted to wait onshore.

Tom and I weren’t about to argue. It was only 10am; we had great scuba gear on board and hours to explore. We suited up and Tom pulled some communication equipment out of their compartments. He gave me something that looked like a bluetooth earpiece and said Guy could keep in contact with us the whole time we were under, just in case a storm or another boat was nearby and we needed to come up.

20 minutes later, Tom and I were on our way down. The water was warm, clear, and beautiful. After only a minute or so, we could see the wreck. It was absolutely massive; way bigger than we’d thought. It was on its side; its three masts sticking straight out. There didn’t appear to be any damage to the structure. It must’ve been on the other side.

Fucking Guy, never one to miss an opportunity, made sure Tom and I learned everything there was to know about his Neptara story. We were a captive audience in the most literal sense of the term; we couldn’t turn off his voice until we took off our gear and pulled out the earpiece. Thankfully, our excitement was able to overcome our annoyance.

We reached the ship and quickly saw it wouldn’t be difficult to get inside. There was a large opening in the main deck that led down. In our ear, Guy was talking about Neptara’s drive to build the surface of the world, starting underwater, and then moving to the surface when he was finished. Once he moved up there, humankind would be forced to change.

I followed Tom into the ship. Right away, we saw a skeleton; its surfaces picked clean by scavengers many, many years ago. Tattered clothing hung from the bones, and Tom reached his gloved hand inside a leather purse. He pulled out two coins. They were covered in slimy stuff. He rubbed one of them against the material of his scuba suit, and, gradually, the residue peeled away. In the beam of the flashlight, its surface shone. Gold. I heard him scream something triumphant behind his breathing apparatus.

A couple more bodies floated ahead of us. None of them carried coins. My flashlight passed over another opening which led down further into the ship. “Neptara would move mountains in front of ships in order to affect the lives of the people on the surface,” Guy continued. “Since he couldn’t enter the surface world until he was finished underwater, he aimed to disrupt shipping routes and cause stress on the economy.”

I sighed around my mouthpiece, but I was grateful the story was getting a little more interesting. Tom signaled to me he was going down to the next deck, so I followed.

There was more debris on that lower deck. Lots of general detritus and more slimy stuff on the surfaces. No bodies, though. There were individual rooms which almost looked like offices, and inside a couple of them were the leather covers of books or ledgers. The paper pages were long gone.

In one of the rooms, there was a medium-sized iron safe. Tom made the triumphant sound again, but when he tried to move it, he realized it was far too heavy. The two of us were able to move it a little, but it would take at least four people to bring it to the surface. We knew we’d be back down there again with some trusted friends in the near future, so we let it go. We wanted to keep looking around and find the main treasure hold.

“Ancient cultures would worship Neptara,” Guy informed us, as we looked around for another opening. “They believed he was the God who shaped the rivers and ponds; all water, really. He was responsible for floods and droughts. They began to worship water itself, believing water was the most powerful force in nature because of how its presence allowed empires to be built.”

There were no openings to go deeper into the ship. We had no idea how to go any further. Tom pointed up toward the surface and I nodded. We’d been exploring for a little over an hour and were running low on air. We navigated around the rooms and headed up through each floor until we were floating in front of the main deck. I was still blown away by how massive the ship was. We had to have only seen a quarter of the thing.

We started to swim up, but as I was kicking, I felt a hand grab my ankle. It was Tom, obviously, but he’d still scared the shit out of me. He was pointing toward the stern of the ship. I showed him my air gauge and he nodded, but still gestured that I follow. I did.

“Neptara’s return will be on the summer solstice in the year 3341,” Guy said. I was barely paying attention. I saw why Tom had turned us around. We swam until we approached a closed door in the deck right near the ship’s stern. That had to be it. A felt a pang of dismay when I saw a large, iron lock on the door. Tom disappeared for a moment and returned with a rock he’d grabbed from the sea floor. With one blow, he smashed the lock through the rotten wood of the door. I pulled the door open.

“By 3342, the humans Neptara allowed to live will have been reshaped into his image.” Tom’s flashlight had stopped working, so he signalled for me to go ahead. I started swimming inside, picturing chests overflowing with gold and diamonds.

There was a ladder going down a narrow path to the bowels of the ship. It would’ve been a hell of a fall for anyone who’d been climbing down if they’d lost their footing. I went slowly, being careful to avoid getting my equipment snagged on anything. The passage was far more narrow than anything we’d traversed so far.

“…purple skin, bulging eyes, and tentacles covering their bodies,” came the voice in my ear. “And when the great floods come to bring the surface world back to the ocean which had birthed it, people will be able to live and breathe in their new underwater homes.”

I reached the bottom of the shaft and turned around with my eyes closed, preparing myself for the sight of the treasure we’d talked about for years and years. My fantasies of loot were occasionally interrupted by unwanted visualizations of the monstrous creatures Guy wouldn’t shut up about. I felt something hit my face and I jumped, causing Tom to grab my shoulder. He’d just gotten down to where I was, too. The room was murky and filled with particulate matter, making it very hard to see. I moved the flashlight beam all around and noticed what had hit my face was a small bone. I shuddered and moved forward, feeling Tom still holding my shoulder.

“Over time, we will develop gills and learn to communicate through resonance. The water carries sound so much better than the air – we will be more advanced.” The remains of a skeletal body floated near a door, its clothes rotted away but its change purse still around its neck. I reached inside and pulled out a coin. I didn’t look at it.

The door ahead of us was locked, but Tom had the presence of mind to bring his rock for when we encountered the treasure chests. He smashed the door lock just as easily as the first one and we gazed inside the enormous room behind it.

Guy babbled in our earpieces. I couldn’t make out what he was saying. The signal was strong, but I’d temporarily lost my ability to understand anything. Tom and I stood at the entrance and looked at what was illuminated by the wide flashlight beam. There weren’t any treasure chests. No bars of gold, either. Just skeletons. Rows and rows of skeletons. Skeletons covered in the merest scraps of fabric. Skeletons, I realized in one second of blinding, atrocious comprehension, that were still shackled to the floor and to one another with heavy, iron chains.

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