Izar stepped out of his small basement office and looked right and left down the hallway. Satisfied that he was alone, he turned on his heel and strode down the dimly lit corridor to the private elevator, where he flashed his identification card before the scanner. The elevator was right there—Izar was the only person to ever use it—but it was so old and ramshackle that its bars moved as slowly as arthritic knees.
Izar examined his identification card as he waited for the elevator bars to part. A circular bronze-and-black insignia glowed on the back of his card, the letters O and D intertwined over a fish-hook that slashed the circle in half. The front of the card stated: Izar Eridan, vice president of operations. Underneath the words was a faded picture of him—light-blue collar, chestnut curls, indigo eyes staring at the camera somewhat anxiously, for the day the photo had been taken six years ago had been his first at the company where he’d decided he wanted to spend the rest of his life.
The elevator bars groaned to a halt. Izar stepped inside the decrepit cage and rode it from the first floor of the basement, B1, down to the second floor, B2. The thirty floors of Ocean Dominion above ground were sleek and modern—the building formed a bronze glass arrow pointing toward the sky in Menkar—but the three underground floors had always intentionally been excluded from renovation. The floor B1 contained Izar’s office and those of other key men in the operations department; B2 was accessible only by this private elevator, to which Izar shared access only with Antares Eridan, the president of Ocean Dominion. But Antares had never descended into B2 after Izar’s first day at the company, so Izar considered B2 his private asylum. As for B3, it was accessible only to Antares, but Antares had no use for it, so it lay dark and dusty.
When the elevator opened again, Izar marched three steps to the one door on B2, and stepped inside the room. It was a windowless warehouse with unpainted walls and untiled floor, but he felt as comforted to enter it as though it were a penthouse—this room was his Invention Chamber. Every night, as soon as the responsibilities of his vice president day job were complete, after other employees had grumbled their way out the doors of Ocean Dominion, Izar slinked into his Invention Chamber to start his night-shift: Castor.
Outside the Invention Chamber, Izar existed; in the Invention Chamber, he came alive. But not tonight.
Instead of stomping into his lair like a lion onto a savannah, Izar closed the door and leaned against it, his shoulders sagging. Looking resolutely away from Castor, he took off his pin-striped suit jacket and dropped it to the floor. He then uncuffed his white, starched-cotton shirt sleeves and rolled them up to his elbows. His glance fell upon his watch; the luminescent hour markers told him the time was close to eleven at night. He unclasped his watch and dropped it upon his suit jacket on the floor, finding the concept of time too manacling in a place where sparks of innovation appeared and disappeared as suddenly as the glimmers of fireflies.
Izar continued to stand there, leaning against the door, for how long he did not know. He despised procrastination, but this night, the odds were stacked so high against him that he could not bear to face them…not yet. If he succeeded in what he intended, he and Antares would become the richest men on earth; if he failed, his life to date would have been a waste, like the dirt under his shoes. Not only the years of his adulthood but also his childhood would have been a waste, for he had been preparing for this purpose for the last twenty-five years, since the very day Antares had adopted him at three years of age.
Izar still remembered the moment like it was yesterday: Kneeling before him, Antares had lit a match. Izar had been mesmerized by the flame—it was a drop of suspended sunlight, a tiny golden phoenix—but Antares had dropped the match in a glass of water. Izar had plunged his fingers into the water to try to rescue the flame, but it had died instantly. Izar had snatched the glass out of Antares’s hand, raised it over his head, and smashed it to the floor. He could still feel the droplets of water splattering his shins.
Antares had not rebuked him. Instead, he had smiled. “I believe you’re a very clever boy,” he’d said in his hoarse smoker’s voice. “When you grow up, I want you to invent underwater fire.”
Izar had nodded, and, from that day, become obsessed with the idea of underwater fire. He had played incessantly with matchsticks; he had switched the stove on and off, staring at the crown-shaped blaze for hours; he had torn apart wires and sparked them against one another, reveling in their fumes. Throughout his early childhood years, the question that had driven him was how—how he would invent underwater fire; it was not until his adolescence that he had thought to ask Antares why.
“Because trillions of dollars’ worth of jewels lie beneath the ocean floor,” Antares had answered. “But they lie so deep that they cannot be accessed without blazing a path down. And yet no man on earth has found a way to sustain fire underwater. I myself have hired dozens of scientists at Ocean Dominion to attempt it, men with prestigious degrees and accomplishments, but, without exception, all have failed. You will invent underwater fire, boy. Gold and diamonds will form the embers of your flames.”
This night, the eighth of July, marked the end of Izar’s underwater-fire journey. If a fire didn’t flame today, not only would he consider his past to be a dead, dry slate, a barren wasteland, but also his future. It was not written anywhere on his business card, but his true role, the one for which he lived, was not vice president of operations, but inventor. He had given the title to himself; this night, he would learn whether he’d earned it.
He longed to know whether he’d succeeded or failed with his underwater-fire mission, but he could not summon the courage…not yet. Now that he was at the end of this road, he thought it fitting to pay tribute to the lampposts that had lit his path over the last six years. Most people retained pictures as mementos; he retained implements, which lay scattered all over the floor of his Invention Chamber—ores of iron, sheets of magnesium, rounds of bullets, panes of sensors. An onlooker might view them as dangerous tripping hazards, but Izar knew precisely what each object signified.
He knelt next to a low mound of ash, and swept his hand through the granules, watching them trickle through his fingers like black sand. They were the cinders of creators—the cinders of not one person, but dozens—and not their bodies, but their theories.
Izar had commenced on his underwater-fire journey by consulting scientific manuals, engineering treatises, and technical articles about combustion. They had all asserted, implicitly or explicitly, that underwater fire was an impossibility, a contradiction in terms. “Oxygen is the catalyst for fire,” one chemist had stated, “and water does contain oxygen, but it might as well not, for the act of combustion requires oxygen in gaseous form, not liquid.” “Even a child recognizes that the role of water is to devour fire,” had claimed a physicist, “not to nurture it.” “When it comes to fire,” had declared an engineer, “water acts as the wolf, not the sheep.”
Izar had piled up all the papers and thrown a lit match upon them. A fire had blazed, and its smoke had scorched his eyes but straightened his vision. In his new clarity, he had resolved that the only applicable laws in the universe of his Invention Chamber would be those that he proved or disproved himself.
Now Izar rose to his feet, strode four steps, and, kneeling, thumbed through a crimson-covered notebook that lay half open on the floor with its spine up, like an injured cardinal. Some of its pages were crumpled, others had corners that were softened by water, a few had burnt edges, and all were yellowed, but Izar grinned at the notebook. The night of the cremation itself, he had started scribbling in this notebook. Over the next years, he had written countless chemical and physical formulae onto its pages, logging also the outcomes of all his underwater-fire experiments.
Though Izar had chosen the notebook arbitrarily—it had happened to be lying around that night—he seemed to have chosen well, for its length was just right: only one page remained. If Izar succeeded today, he would jot his final note on that page, and it would consist of just two words: Mission accomplished. With those two words, the journal would become the most important object in the Invention Chamber, for it would make his work replicable. If he failed, he would destroy the journal.
A burble sounded. Rising to his feet, Izar glanced at the labyrinth of pipes in the ceiling high above. In his first month at Ocean Dominion he had found the sporadic noises of the pipes irritating—they sounded like explosions of dysentery from a maze of intestines (sometimes, he could hear them even from his office upstairs)—but he smiled at the pipes now as at an ailing relative. The pipes had been with him all these years, their sounds his only source of companionship in his Invention Chamber.
His glance landed on the shelves along the walls. The shelves at least were more organized than the floor, though it was more out of safety than any punctiliousness on his part: The shelves were stocked with hundreds of flasks of flammable liquids and powders, potent enough to burn down the entirety of Ocean Dominion, all the way up to the thirtieth floor. Izar had collected them from all over the world, and had experimented with each of them in his underwater-fire mission.
But his favorite memento of his journey lay not in the room but in his bone itself, in the form of a platinum chip. He had obtained the chip three years ago, soon after he’d begun experimenting with melting points for all types of metal—lead, tungsten, titanium, cobalt, iron—and had concluded that magnesium was optimal, for it was able to reach and sustain the highest temperature. He had molded himself a torch of magnesium and stuffed it with an array of combustion powders. With his right hand, he had pulled the trigger of the torch in a pail of water, placing his left wrist directly before the barrel to detect viscerally if any heat emerged. With the first iteration of his torch, he had felt no more than a wisp of smoke. The second iteration had singed the hair right off his wrist. He had then doubled the diameter of the internal gas chamber of the torch, to increase its storage capacity for oxygen. When he’d pulled the trigger in water this time, the resulting flame, though ephemeral, had shot out so sharply that it had burned the inside of his left wrist clean to the bone.